In this latest addition to the Skolian Empire series, Asaro takes readers back a bit in time to a point when Roka Skolia has just recently married her Consort, with whom she raises her dynastic brood, many of whom have appeared as main characters in earlier (published) books.
The plot revolves around Roka’s intended husband, young prince Dayj, who, desperate for escape from the loneliness and isolation of his prison in the palace, runs away – only to disappear. His family call in a mercenary/bounty hunter type, our heroine, Baaj, who is retired from the Pharaoh’s Army – which is led by the matriarch of Dayj’s royal family, the Majdas. Told in parts, the novel follows Baaj’s search for the prince, her investigation into criminal activity in the Undercity, and the resolution of the conflict between Undercity dwellers and Above-City citizens. A smaller arc develops the romance between Baaj and her former lover, disreputable Undercity kingpin, Jak.
One of the things I love about science fiction is that it explores issues like gender equality and cultural supremacy/superiority in imaginative environments that can change a reader’s perspective and worldview. In Undercity, Asaro explores gender equality in a flipped culture that contends that men are the “delicate,” “protected” sex. While much of the society has moved beyond such gender bias and inequality, in the royal palace of the Majda, the princes are imprisoned, restricted, hidden. Much like the women in harems.
The main characters, following the majority of the progressive society, demonstrate a preference for and belief in gender equality, deploring Dayj’s situation. Through this perspective, the author reveals her own belief in gender equality. The resolution of this plot line further emphasizes the importance of freedom and equality. Caring for others means letting them choose their own path in life, allowing them to make their own decisions (even mistakes), and giving them space to grow. The heroine points out this truth to the Majdas, opening their eyes to Dayj’s unhappiness. Ultimately, the story contrasts true love (familial-style, not One-True-Love-style) and possessive love.
A small gem really stood out, when Baaj talks with an AI computer that posits why one of the princes, a man who lived a normal, free life before marrying a Majda princess and giving up that freedom, would be one of the strongest advocates and supporters of the seclusion and imprisonment of other princes. Why should anyone else have the freedom he willingly gave up, the AI asks. This is one of the many examples when the societal norms are explored on a deeper, personal level – and the author does an excellent job of explaining individual motivations that feel true and natural.
Another big issue explored in this novel is the conflict between two societies, one wealthy and superior, and the other impoverished and proud. Undercity is considered “slums” by the above-city dwellers, and when people in power (the Majdas) begin to realize how extensive is the poverty of Undercity, their first proposals demonstrate a lack of understanding of this different, vibrant culture, as well as an arrogant assumption that their way of life is best for everyone. The main character deals with this skillfully and diplomatically. Readers are presented with the potential consequences of this belief, and the inefficacy of “saving,” “protective” measures that are founded in the belief that the other people’s way of life must change in order for them to improve their lives. Change to become like the wealthy society, that is.
The author zooms in on this issue, to examine the exceptional case of the heroine who does the bootstrap thing to improve her quality of living and expand her experiences. Very directly, the author confronts this idea that the supercilious society can – and does – use examples like this to blame others who cannot do the same. “If only they would try…” ignores the root causes, and perpetuates the problem. The poor are not always poor because they are shiftless, but because circumstances have opposed them, or because they have a different definition of poor.
Of the things that I found lacking, the romance left me most unsatisfied. It felt flimsy and convenient, instead of demonstrating a realistic second-chances relationship. In the long-ago, the two main characters fell in love as teenagers. Then, at age 16, the heroine left the Undercity for the army – it is later explained how she was influenced by an anthropologist to expand her knowledge and education illicitly, so she could enlist and get off-planet. Decades later (don’t forget, readers, at the beginning we’re told she looks 25 but is really forty-something), she comes back, meets her love again for the first time, and they immediately fall back into old patterns. There are no adjustments, no real differences to resolve. Athough the author does make a token attempt to describe how the heroine’s life experiences have made her see things differently – in fact, this is critical to the plot – this never really affects the relationship. Further, it is mentioned at one point that they first make love WHEN THEY ARE EACH TWELVE. Which answers the question, how did they build such a strong relationship before they turned sixteen… But I found this uncomfortable. For me, even the explication of the youthful maturity of the Undercity culture didn’t provide enough foundation for this very adolescent relationship.
The other weakness I saw was the heroine’s out-of-place lack of confidence in her abilities to persuade the Majdas that her people have a vibrant and value-rich culture. While she is described, and acts like, a determined, confident, stubborn person who doesn’t give up easily (or at all), she too-frequently expresses that she does not have the skills to negotiate and be diplomatic. Perhaps her actions and her thoughts did not mesh – while this could be realistic (who does not feel doubt even though they have demonstrated they are capable of something?), it jarred throughout for me.
Overall, I found this a fascinating science fiction that explores bigger issues in human society, while at the same time neatly and realistically portraying individual motivations and personalities. The world is well-drawn, and aside from early telling instead of showing, has depth, life, and variation to it.
Recommended especially for fans of Catherine Asaro’s other science fiction works, and for science fiction fans in general. Liaden Universe fans may also find it enjoyable.
*Advance copy provided by Baen via NetGalley
Catch the Lightning prefaces Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire. Also a novel with smaller scope (two main characters, one main storyline) and a bit of romance, it has a great deal in common with Undercity.
The Liaden universe is a delightful, witty, entertaining science fiction comedy of manners that often has romantic plots and sub-plots, and very scientific-seeming space travel and technology details (NB: I have no knowledge of this, or whether scientists or academics would be disappointed). Local Custom has the most in common with this one, so if you like the romantic sub-plot in well-drawn science fiction worlds, you’ll probably enjoy both of these.
While The Outback Stars resembles Tanya Huff’s Confederation series and David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, it deals in both love, military culture, and mystery.