The Ruby Dynasty
novels – published by Tor as the Saga of the Skolian Empire
– have collectively won the Nebula, the Sapphire, the Prism,
and several other awards. It was the Nebula, in particular,
awarded to the sixth book in the series (THE QUANTUM ROSE),
which drew my attention. After reading the cover blurb on
PRIMARY INVERSION (the first novel in the series), I decided to
take a chance. And, since the store also had a used copy of the
second novel, CATCH THE LIGHTNING, I ended up picking up a copy
of that, too.
This is a
reaction to the first three volumes in the series: PRIMARY
INVERSION, CATCH THE LIGHTNING, and THE LAST HAWK.
To give some
brief background for the series (and provide necessary context):
Six thousand years ago, an unknown alien species, for reasons
unknown, scooped a selection of humanity off of Earth and took
them to a distant planet. The aliens eventually abandoned this
human settlement (again, for reasons unknown) and disappeared.
Salvaging the alien technology left behind, this colony of
humanity went out to the stars, looking for their lost home.
They never found
it. But their colonies did spread throughout the local region of
the galaxy under the banner of the Ruby Empire. Eventually,
however, the alien technology they had salvaged began to break
down – and they lacked the knowledge to repair it or replace
it. The Ruby Empire broke apart, and its colonies reverted to
various stages of barbarism.
discovered the secrets of interstellar travel for itself and
turned its eyes to the stars… only to be surprised by the
discovery that other humans had gotten there first.
One other piece
of crucial information: When the aliens scooped up a segment of
humanity, they had, intentionally or not, ended up with a small
community which possessed all of the recessive genes necessary
for telepathy. Inevitable inbreeding led to psi powers
expressing themselves frequently in the Ruby Empire, and in the
barbarous colonies the Empire left behind.
future, humanity is broken down into three interstellar empires:
The Allied Worlds of Earth, the Skolian Empire, and the Trader
Empire is effectively ruled by the Ruby Dynasty, a small family
of powerful psi descended from the original Ruby Empire. Known
as the Rhon, these psi power the Skol-Net – a psi network
which binds their empire together and give their fighter pilots
a notable edge over the Trader Empire.
Empire is ruled by aristocrats. These aristos are the result of
genetic tinkering with the Rhon. Although the tinkering was an
attempt to strengthen their psi powers, the result was far
worse: The aristos are genetically-coded sadists, whose psi-receptors
receive pain and transform it into pleasure. They conquer worlds
mercilessly, and seek out psi to serve them as “providers”
(tortured slaves whose ability to project pain greatly increases
Worlds of Earth maintain their existence by virtue of the fact
that they could tip the balance of power in the conflict between
the Skolians and the Traders. Neither side of the war can afford
to antagonize the Allieds.
novel is packed full of great stuff. At first glance, the plot
is well-done space opera of the best sort: Dramatic space
battles, larger-than-life characters, planets to be saved,
empires to save and empires to thwart.
But as the book
develops, surprising depth and detail begin to emerge.
battles and interstellar empires are given a firm foundation of
hard SF drawn from the cutting-edge of scientific theory:
Everything from FTL to space fighters are thoroughly justified.
Her larger-than-life characters are given biotech, nano-nets,
and cybernetics. Even her planet destroyers are freshly
original, thoroughly detailed, and – as a result –
thoroughly horrifying in their conception.
doesn’t stop there. In addition to her Big Ideas, she also
liberally spreads neat ideas all over her universe. The result
of all this is a richly textured backdrop against which her
action plays out.
plot, however, is revealed to have a greater depth than a first
glance would reveal: A space opera adventure is quickly shown to
be laced by the drama of the characters who participate in it.
Romance and heartbreak arise naturally out of Asaro’s strong
characterization and active plotting.
INVERSION is not, however, without its flaws. Asaro’s ending
seems rushed and arbitrary (although it still provides a
satisfactory conclusion). The central romance is literally
justified through Rhon hormones, instead of arising naturally
from circumstance and character.
But these flaws
are minor. PRIMARY INVERSION is a great read and a ton of fun,
and for a first novel it demonstrates a remarkable mastery. I
was hooked. I wanted to immediately run back to the store and
pick up the rest of the series.
But I had CATCH
THE LIGHTNING already in hand, so I went to that first.
CATCH THE LIGHTNING was a major let-down.
First off, the
hard SF and space opera of PRIMARY INVERSION has been flushed
for an incredibly stupid alternate universe. Asaro literally
tries to convince us that delaying the birth of Jesus Christ and
the appearance of monotheism by 340 years would essentially have
little or no impact on the modern world. If it hadn’t been for
the remarkable strength of PRIMARY INVERSION, this would have
been a “throw the book against the wall” moment.
natural plotting of PRIMARY INVERSION has also disappeared, to
be replaced by deus ex machina after deus ex machina. “Oh, no!
The government has taken my boyfriend’s spaceship! It’s a
good thing that the mother of my best friend’s roommate works
at the top secret facility where my boyfriend’s spaceship has
been taken!” (This, by the way, would qualify as yet another
“throw the book against the wall” moment.)
remnants of the strong, deep characterization remain (notably in
the two main characters), most of the cast is populated by
poorly rendered clichés. You can always tell who the bad guys
are, for example, because they’ll be the ones raping (or
trying to rape) the main characters. And even the main
characters ring false: The main character is an orphaned teen on
the streets of 20th century Los Angeles, yet she has
absolutely no problem traveling to the future and engaging in
space opera adventures. (Oh, there’s a couple sentences where
she tells us how hard it was to make the adjustment. But
that’s not demonstrated in even the slightest degree by what
she actually says, thinks, or does.)
Perhaps worst of
all, the romance elements which made the first novel so
endearing have literally been transformed into softcore porn. In
fact, all pretence is discarded: Rhon hormones explicitly drive
the main characters together, so that Asaro can gleefully move
onto describing condoms, erections, and penetration as quickly
In short, this
is an atrocious book. It fails as science fiction. It fails as
disappointment is all the more bitter because it follows the
delightful experience which was PRIMARY INVERSION.
Based on the
strength of PRIMARY INVERSION, however, along with some
much-needed advice from rec.arts.sf.written, I decided to give
Asaro’s third novel a try.
THE LAST HAWK
reads to me like a strange, mutant blending between Iain
Banks’ THE PLAYER OF GAMES and all the worst clichés and
flaws which began cropping
up in CATCH THE LIGHTNING. The plot strands a Rhon prince
on a relatively primitive world. While being held as a secret
political captive for various reasons, the prince engages in a
somewhat interesting romp of sex, politics, and gambling.
With this book I
began to conclude that Asaro simply lacks the skills of a
world-builder. She has a lot of neat ideas to throw onto the
table, but that’s not the same thing as investing those ideas
with believability or making those ideas come together in a
coherent fashion. For example, Asaro creates the game of quis:
Quis has not only managed to replace warfare on this planet, it
has also become the forum for political debate, a repository of
lost scientific knowledge, and a way of transmitting messages
from one side of the planet to the other (as a result of one
player influencing another, who influences another, until the
influence reaches the other side of the planet and is then
interpreted by someone there).
Asaro describes quis to us early in the book. It’s essentially
a pattern-matching game with a complexity slightly above that of
poker. It might have slightly more representational power than
Chess, but it comes nowhere near the complexity of Go (even
assuming that Asaro is describing to us a simple version of the
game). So, basically, Asaro is asking me to believe that Go
could replace war, replace talking as a means of conversation
and debate, maintain scientific and technological information
hidden in its advanced strategies for several millennium, and
transmit messages from one side of the planet to the other.
I ain’t buying
When Iain Banks
told a largely identical story in THE PLAYER OF GAMES, the game
to which he ascribed such remarkable properties was infinitely
more complicated than the simplistic pattern game Asaro
describes. (And, in fact, Banks doesn’t ascribe *nearly* as
many ridiculous powers to his game.) As a result, Bank’s story
works… and Asaro’s doesn’t.
Did I also
mention that this planet is a matriarchy? No? Well, that’s
probably because it keeps slipping my mind. The problem is that
Asaro’s version of a matriarchy is to essentially take a
standard patriarchy and flip-flop the gender roles. In fact, you
can take the entire book, flip the genders of the characters,
and end up with a perfectly coherent tale. The problem, of
course, is that matriarchies don’t work that way. In a society
without birth control, for example, females do not become
sexually promiscuous while, at the same time, embracing a
tradition of warrior leadership. Nor would the concept of
“virginal honor” (in the medieval sense) be transferred onto
males: They simply lack the physical characteristics required to
create such a sense of “honor” being “taken”.
“shortcuts to softcore porn” also take a turn for the worse.
No longer content with merely having Rhon hormones justify
instant love and eternal commitment, she simply has every single
woman with the least hint of sex appeal fall instantly in love
with her main character – thus allowing her to quickly segue
into pointlessly graphic descriptions of their sex life, before
shuffling the female off stage right in order to bring in a
brand new love interest from stage left.
What finally killed the book for me,
however, were the incessant deus ex machinas. Some of them had
become utterly predictable by this point, while others were
freshly insipid. For the third straight book, for example, the
main character miraculously bumps into someone with a complete
set of Rhon genes, but none of the typical recessive
deformities. And if you do decide to read this book, make sure
to keep an eye on Kelric’s telepathic abilities: Damaged early
in the book, they remain turned off whenever they would be
inconvenient, but are immediately turned right back on whenever
Asaro needs him to read somebody’s mind, only to disappear
again in short order when their presence again becomes
On top of all
this, there are quite a few places in the book where Asaro’s
plotting is badly telegraphed, and the ending falls apart into a
nearly incoherent mess: Scenes without meaning or context begin
to be thrown around with wild abandon, jam-packed with
coincidences indicative of an author desperately trying to stick
to her outline and deadline. And let’s not even discuss the
continuity flaws and other authorial oversights. (The main
character, for example, leaves his children to die a horrible
death by slow poisoning at the end of the book. Not
intentionally, but because the author apparently hasn’t
realized that that’s what will happen.)
But I’m forced
to ask myself this: Would I be judging this book so harshly if
it weren’t for the fact that the appallingly bad CATCH THE
LIGHTNING had painted me a roadmap of Asaro’s weaknesses and
I don’t think
But it still
isn’t an impressive offering by any stretch of the
imagination. Ultimately my reaction to THE LAST HAWK can be
summed up like this: It took me a day and a half to finish the
last twenty-five pages of the book. I literally couldn’t
muster enough interest in the characters, the plot, or the book
to keep my attention focused for more than a couple of minutes
at a time.
All of this leaves me, once again, in a
quandary. Do I keep dipping my toes into this pool, hoping that
the lightning which struck with PRIMARY INVERSIONS will find
Catherine Asaro again? I ended up picking up a copy of THE
QUANTUM ROSE the day before I started THE LAST HAWK, because it
was used and cheap. But there are still two more volumes between
THE LAST HAWK and THE QUANTUM ROSE. So… I dunno. Maybe.
There’s still enough there to convince me that Asaro has the
stuff it takes to make a good (possibly even great) author. And
there’s that Nebula award for THE QUANTUM ROSE, which is what
intrigued me into trying the series in the first place.
But, at the very least, it will be awhile before I do:
There’s other stuff I want to read.
LAST HAWK: C