I have only myself to blame for this. I could have gone with the Chronicles of Tornor or A Different Light but no, I snagged this one even though there was a quiet voice at the back of my head saying I didn’t enjoy The Sardonyx Net the first time round. Well, now at least I remember why I didn’t like it.
Dana Ikoro is a self-styled smuggler whose general competence can be judged by two things: he seems to be known to the authorities as a smuggler – it may not help that his ship has special drug-transporting cooling units out where they can be seen by anyone poking around his ship - and when we meet him he has just had his cargo of drugs con-jobbed away from him. Angry at the loss of a cargo, he follows up on a possibility of profit on Chabad with such skill and understated subtlety that he is interviewed, drugged, arrested, convicted, tortured and consigned to serve out his term as a slave by page 38.
While Dana plays an important role in the plot, he’s not the central focus; he’s more of a convenient damsel in distress than a protagonist, someone whose travails motivate other people to act. The real core is the relationship between siblings Zed and Rhani Yago in context of the great crisis currently faced by Chabad.
Zed and Rhani are brother and sister; he’s a sexual sadist obsessed with his sister and she’s pretty fond of him, although he’s not one of her past lovers. Chabad doesn’t have an incest taboo but the pair still managed to alarm their mother enough she made sure to split them up, something that only made the Forbidden Love that much more of an obsession for Zed. Zed is master of the Net, the ship that transports slaves to Chabad, while Rhani administers the Yago estates on Chabad itself.
Generations ago, hostile Chabad was selected as a dumping ground for unwanted prisoners, a world where they could live or die without bothering the other worlds of Sardonyx Sector too much. The Four Families, of whom the Yagos are one, got the bright idea that if they simply enslaved all the prisoners, they could force them work in the mines and farms of Chabad for the betterment of all, or at least the convenience of the worlds of the Sardonyx Sector and the betterment of the Four Families. Everyone wins! Or at least everyone who counts does.
Prisoners are slaves for the length of their jail term. At the end of the term, they are freed. Children born while they are slaves are not themselves slaves. They get some small sum for their efforts, which they can use after being freed to make a new life. Although there don’t seem to be any rules against stuff like torture or rape, such is the benevolence of the system that slaves can only be killed under certain conditions!
For some reason some of the slaves suffer from what Americans of a certain vintage would call “Drapetomania”, a pathological desire for freedom even though this would inconvenience their owners. While Zed is happy to torture escapees into submission, the usual method to keep slaves happy and in line involves doping them with Dorazine. This is a logistical challenge because nobody in the sector knows how to make Dorazine and transporting it across sector lines is illegal. Until now, the solution has been to use goobers like Dana to smuggle the stuff.
The problem facing the Yagos is two-fold: one aspect is that the new top drug cop, A-Rae, is strangely determined to crush the drug trade and the slavery that is dependent on it. This seems to be personal for him and nobody suspects how far he will go in his vendetta. The other aspect is public opinion is leaning against slavery; even the former slaves who make up much of the population of Chabad are curiously ungrateful towards their former owners. Nobody seems to have any sympathy for the real victims in all this, the Four Families.
The novel follows Rhani as she searches for ways to maintain the family fortune and the traditions that have made Chabad great despite the growing public and official hostility. Complicating her efforts is a new abolitionist movement that has decided to move beyond appropriation into escalating campaign of violence, a movement whose connection to Rhani’s household is deeper than she suspects.
The slavery in this isn’t as terrible as the version found in the Antebellum US but that’s not a particularly high bar to vault. It would be quite familiar to anyone living in the current US, although as far as we are shown, the people supplying the Chabadians don’t seem yet to have hit on the idea of singling out particular groups as presumptive felons.
The justifications for Chabad’s system are quite familiar and for the people who profit from it, very convincing. They believe the system is more humane than the alternative. Various abuses of the system, like that time Zed tortured an escapee for days in the hearing of the entire household, are apparently dropped into a memory hole. When those abuses turn out to have consequences, this comes as a great surprise to the slave-owners. Interestingly, nobody seems to have noticed that the rule whereby slaves are freed if their master dies, even if this is well before the end of their sentence, is a huge incentive for slaves to arrange fatal accidents for their masters. Sorry, none of the owners have. At least one slave does.
I will give the author this, she never breaks character. Rhani remains eternally perplexed that people are being so mean to her and the abolitionists are pretty much all extremists, working out of spite rather than sincere political conviction. The pro-slavery side only breaks the law because the unreasonable abolitionists force them to while it is the abolitionists who resort to threats, kidnapping and murder.
I think we’re supposed to feel a bit of sympathy for Zed but for the most part he’s not the one paying the price for his little eccentricities so he can go die in a fire along with his enabling sibling.
Deciding to tell the story from the perspective of an incestuous Rhett and Scarlet would have been a bold decision indeed if only science fiction didn’t have a long tradition of punching down. As it is, science fiction does have that long tradition and while I expect there are some who will warm to this experiment, I myself am not one of them.