Shadow of the Swan

M.K. Wren
The Phoenix Legacy, book 2

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We can learn many things from older works of SF and what I learned from this one is that rereading it made me sad.

This will be comparatively short, I think.

Once again the novel proper begins with a lengthy info-dump, one of the frequent history lessons. In this case it is the conquest of the Sudafrikan Union by the Holy Conferation. This provides an immediate answer to the question “will the references to non-whites be any less … unfortunate than the ones in the first book?”

As it was, Sudafrika had advanced little past the iron age, although it made great strides after its initial contacts with the Holy Confederation in its period of expansion by trade; the Tsanians were apt learners and excellent imitators.

Not as such, no.

The big threads in this middle volume are the internal struggle for power within the Phoenix, whose super-duper psychohistory pointed them at two possible acceptable leaders for the movement. The problem is that while our protagonist Alex might be willing to share power (to the extent anyone does in this society), rival Prediss Uasher is a megalomaniac who spends the book trying to get rid of Alex, remove his supporters and secure for himself total power over the organization.

Not only is Usher power-mad but he is also mad-mad. Usher has a bold plan for the Phoenix, which if it works will leave him undisputed rule of the Alpha Centauri system and if it fails will doom the Phoenix.

Interesting detail about how the march of science makes it harder to use old favourite plots: Prediss is attractive to the Phoenix because he might be the lost dauphin the son of the last Lord of the House of Peladeen, the nominal monarch of the Republic. These days an author would have to explain why no DNA test was made but this was written before DNA testing became a routine thing.

The other thread involves Alex’s One True Love Adrien Camine Elisee, who has every reason to think Alex is dead; her grief is not the worst consequence of Alex’s faked death and defection since his mother killed herself but it is the one that occupies his mind. Since she is single, she is available for marriage and while her father does respect her wishes to some extent, this is explicitly a patriarchal society that only values women as breeding objects.

Since DeKoven Woolf has run out of sons to betroth, the family that manages to snag Adrien’s hand (and the valuable alliance that comes with it) is none other than the House of Badir Selasis, the main rivals to Alex’s family, one led by the moustache-twirlingly evil Orin. Unfortunately for Orin, reversion to the mean is biting the House of Badir Selasis in a bad way; his son Karliss has “will do for the House of Badir Selasis what Tsar Nicholas II did for the Romanovs” written all over him. Among Karliss’ many achievements is catching a STD that has left him sterile and impotent, a condition knowledge of which is a death sentence.

I am actually a bit surprised Orin doesn’t have Karliss quietly strangled before taking steps to secure a new heir. Orin was foresightful enough to make sure Karliss had sperm samples safely stored before he caught crotch rot.

Unlike the first book, Adrien gets to save herself, which she does in a way calculated to enrage the Selasids while trying to discourage them from having her or family murdered.

Usher’s madness raises an interesting question: given that their models led the Phoenix to pick this guy as one of their two best options, to what degree can we trust their models to be correct? I think it is at least arguable that the Phoenix’s psychohistory is as solid as the cliology in Michael Flynn’s “An Introduction to Psychohistory”, which as we know predicted the continued existance of the Soviet Union well past 1991 (although oddly not in the 2001 version, “An Introduction to Cliology”, almost as though the essay had been edited to remove embarrassing details).

The Phoenix is still determined to keep the Bonds from doing anything to free themselves:

He smiled at the Shepherd, but it slipped away from him. “Esaph, if you remember nothing else I’ve said, remember this: There may be a time of war coming, but the Bonds must take no part in it, no matter who tempts or threatens them. The way of the Blessed is peace. That is the will of the Mezion. If this time of war comes and any of your people so much as raise a hand, the Mezion will punish them. The Purge after the Fall of Peladeen will seem a children’s game in comparison.”

and

“First, the appeal to the ‘enchained masses’ must not reach them. Aborting the preemption of the PubliCom System won’t be difficult; SI will be in charge of that mission.

In their defense, it’s because armed uprisings invariably get the Bonds killed in tens of thousands, although I expect previous experience at what happens when Bonds are burdened with inappropriate freedom plays a role:

For example, one of his first acts upon becoming First Lord was to make the Bonds in his House salaried employees. The result was chaos not only for Fesh overseers, but for the Bonds themselves. Since they were being paid, they were expected tobuy many of the goods and services that had previously been supplied by the House, yet few Bonds could even count past ten, nor could they judge the monetary value of what they bought, and inevitably some Fesh took advantage of their ignorance to fill their own pockets. Mankeen simultaneously instituted a program for educating his Bonds, but education takes time, and after a year of rampant confusion, he submitted to necessity and modified his Bond salary policy so that they received only a small monetary payment, and basic services and goods were again supplied by the House.

It turns out the Phoenix isn’t that much more keen on the Fesh (the educated technical classes, the people who actually make the wheels of civilization go round) getting out of line. When “radical liberals” pop up amongst Fesh university students, the reaction is not to see how to coopt them into the greater struggle but to treat the phenomenon as a pathology. This isn’t implausible but it tends to paint the Phoenix as one set of aristocrats struggling against another, which personally I find about as interesting as thinly disguised retelling of the War of the Roses.

I am sad to say I am not enjoying this reread and it’s enough of a chore I don’t think I will reread the third one.

The book can be purchased here.


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