While it is easy to draw parallels between this novel and various classics of both science-fiction and Regency romance, to do so would be to give as incomplete a picture as a review of a restaurant containing a list of side dishes that other restaurants have also served. As with a fine meal, this book deserves to be judged on what Wells has done with the ingredients.
Far enough in the past that it has been lost from history, colony ships landed on Requite. Over the centuries the ships have become Spires, feudal city-states ruled by warring families. When Tzenni Boccamera’s sister is captured by a rival Spire she sets out on a secret mission to rescue her. But will her ability to not only maintain but improve the fragmented technology that remains be enough to survive in a society built on polite assassinations?
The background detail of the world are well realised. From the first moment, Tzenni uses a genetically-keyed lock to enter a castle, the feeling of ultra-technology lost to physical and social degradation is pervasive. It is not merely plausible that a civilisation with genetic manipulation and computer assisted manufacturing might have an underclass, it would seem implausible if there were not oppressed peasantry.
The book contains several plot arcs in addition to Tzenni’s search for her sister. Some intertwine closely with the search, drawing Tzenni away from her goals, whereas others appear not to touch it at all. This gives a feeling both that nothing happens in a vacuum and that even supporting characters are the subjects of their own narratives. These interlocking plots all draw the reader forward, maintaining a sense of tension without creating a feeling of being hurried or left behind.
It is this momentum that also produces the only jarring note in the work. This novel was originally the first half of a longer work and so – while Wells has done an excellent job of picking a point to split the halves and resolving the majority of the active plot arcs – the reader might find the end comes a little earlier than expected. However, this issue can easily be solved by obtaining the second volume, so is relatively minor for those afflicted with neither a lack of patience nor a barrier to purchase.
Each chapter opens with a short quote from an in-world classic. As well as adding much to both the reader’s understanding of the world and their immersion in it, these often serve to provide a counterpoint to the ongoing narrative, allowing Wells to add a note of comedy where it would be unrealistic for characters to be light-hearted or reveal how hollow social convention is without compromising a character’s determination to fit in.
Corpses make bad paramours, but better than average confidants
-Ir-Marid Boccamera (303-380 S.F.) The Assassin’s Pillow-Book
The sense of ongoing stories beyond the events explicitly covered by the novel is skilfully built upon by characterisation that avoids objectification. As with the novel as a whole, it would be easy to describe Tzenni with a few labels, but her actions are driven by her being Tzenni, not her being a woman or a noble. Where a character appears to be more simplistic, Wells subverts the portrayal later, revealing it is the character using a stereotype for their own purposes. However, this revelation is only for the reader; the characters display the very realistic dichotomy of adopting masks for their own benefit while assuming other people are part of broad groups.
This blindness is exploited particularly well in the burgeoning romance plots. While the reader knows the characters’ intentions, they are constrained by a lifetime of social propaganda and a fear of being exploited. Combined with a world strong enough to make social pressure enough to keep people apart, this makes it genuinely uncertain whether or not the couples will end up together.
The same deft hand is used on the characterisation of things that are not familiar to the reader. Unlike some books containing polyamory or other-sexed characters, the sexual politics are not at the forefront of description; while both influence individual interactions and goals, the characters do not focus on what is – to them – a mundane part of their society.
I enjoyed this novel immensely. I recommend it to both readers seeking decayed remnants of ultra-technology and those who enjoy social manoeuvring.
I was not asked to write this review and paid full price for my copy of this book; however, in the interests of full disclosure, I have known Ankaret Wells socially for many years.