1993’s The Phoenix in Flight is the first volume in Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge’s Exordium pentology. There is a new edition of this volume, but this review is of the 1993 edition, because that is the edition I happen to have on hand.
Eusabian, Lord of Vengeance, avatar of Dol, grumpiest Dol’jharian of all, has long yearned to punish the Panarchy for defeating Dol’jhar some decades ago. The main problem facing Eusabian is that the Panarchy draws on the resources of the many races and worlds of the Thousand Stars1; Dol’jhar draws on the resources of … Dol’jhar, a cold, bleak, poor planet.
But now Eusabian has learned how to exploit the still-functioning relics of the long-vanished Ur. With the Ur’s instant communications and their stupendous power sources in his possession, the balance of power has tilted decisively in Eusabian’s favour. The time has come for his vendetta, his ritual paliach. Which in its purest form ends with the display of the severed head of the enemy.
The first steps in the paliach are the assassinations of the Panarch’s three sons:
- Galen (off-stage and while apparently nice enough, not someone we’re given first-hand reasons to care about),
- Semion (on-stage and a monumental dick whose wife actively yearns for his death), and
- Brandon (the charming ne’er-do-well).
It’s short work to murder both Galen and Semion; the plot to kill Brandon misfires, but a well-placed radiation bomb does kill everyone who attended a certain gala. The victims constitute a surprisingly large fraction of the Panarchy’s government.
More unpleasant surprises follow: the Dol’jharian ships and those of their allies are far more powerful than expected, thanks to the Ur technology they now command. In a surprisingly short time, the Panarchy forces have been routed and the Panarch himself is captured by the Dol’jharians.
All would be just peachy for Eusabian save for one thing: Brandon is just the sort of self-centered heir who would skip out on important social obligations. By avoiding the gala, he has also managed to avoid the massacre at said gala. Alive and on the run, Brandon is the natural seed around which a resistance could form.
Regrettably, at least from Eusabian’s point of view, a treacherous underling has purloined a stolen Ur relic of prodigious power, the Heart of the Demon. Much worse from Eusabian’s perspective, the Heart of the Demon is now in Brandon’s possession.
If Doyle and MacDonald’s The Price of the Stars was Tor’s try at I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars, then the very nearly contemporaneous The Phoenix in Flight seems in some ways to be I Can’t Believe It’s Not Dune. There’s the vast galactic (well, Thousand Star) feudal *sigh* government, the planet of violent religious extremists, the prohibition on intelligent machines2. There are some significant differences: Smith and Trowbridge’s setting has aliens whereas Herbert’s did not; the good guys are the galactics, which means that the violent theocrats come off even more negatively than they did in, say, Dune Messiah.
There’s a common trope in space opera; infiltration, even into the securest of secure facilities, is so easy you have to wonder why anyone even bothers with the sturdy walls, the iron doors, the wandering killbots, and the guards. You could rent a nice open-plan villa somewhere, get a much more pleasant working environment for much less money, and not significantly affect the difficulty of sneaking in and then back out.
This is one of the few space operas I have read that actually has an in-story reason why the particular secure facility is so easy for the good guys to penetrate: the Panarchist palace has only recently been commandeered by the bad guys and while the bad guys don’t have all the security codes, the good guys do.
The book doesn’t even try to be a standalone, but the cover does honestly reveal that this is book one of a series. The book is also interesting as a physical artefact; at 442 pages, it is shorter than that its bulk would indicate. There is probably some boring accounting reason for this (thicker paper may have been cheaper at the time) but I have also heard an interesting and entirely unverified rumour that provides an alternate explanation. In the mid-1990s, some in the book trade were convinced that readers were more likely to buy books that gave them a good page per dollar value. Bulkier paper could provide the heft that mere word count could not.
The authors do not burden the reader with shades of gray: the Panarchy may not be all that great and their aristocrats seem to be eager to latch onto the “it’s the system, not us” excuse for various shortcomings, but the antagonists are much, much worse. It’s basically the Holy Roman Empire against the Planet of Evil Bastards and it is not that hard to pick a side.
The new editions of the Exordium books can be purchased here.
1: I don’t know if there are literally a thousand stars in the Thousand Stars or if a thousand stars is just the local version of “many.” I do know that if you get into a dispute with a teacher over whether the milli in millipede is literal or figurative, teachers want a heads up before you pour a bag of millipedes onto their desk so you can count legs together. I mean, I know that now.
2: There’s a certain similarity between the (off-stage) machine intelligences and the AIs that turn up in the absolutely dreadful Dune sequels that Tor later inflicted on a long-suffering world. I cannot say if that is parallel development or … emulation, shall we say, but I can say that the Exordium books came first.
3: Specifically, I heard that a particular best-selling fantasy author published by Tor was convinced that the reason that Robert Jordan’s books sold better than their books was purely because Jordan’s books looked longer (because they were longer). This author was said to have insisted that their books be printed on a bulkier paper stock, which would increase the thickness of the book . This does not seem entirely unreasonable. When I was a bookseller, I noted that some customers sought out long books, believing that such books would be less expensive per page. More reading, lower cost.
I dare not identify the author in question, but I will say this: it was not Robert Jordan.
4: I vaguely recall that there was also an art to choosing a thickness that encouraged placing the book face-out over spine-out, or so I was told. I no longer remember the magic page count. It was one that maximized face-out-ness without unduly increasing printing costs.
Hmmm. Having considered this at greater length, the rule of thumb may have involved a maximum length and not a minimum one. If so, it operated to encourage shorter books. Judging by the behemoths that came out in the 1990s, it did so ineffectively.