1991’s Hellflower is the first volume in the Hellflower space opera series. Hellflower was written by Rosemary Edghill under the name eluki bes shahar1.
The Phoenix Empire rose from the ruins of the Federation to provide its subjects with peace, order, and good government. Each subject has their duly allotted role. Butterfly St. Cyr has an unallotted but crucial role: low-level smuggler, testing to see how long it takes the Empire to notice her and execute her for multiple capital crimes.
Butterfly being Butterfly, she will spend the book adding to the affronts for which the Empire might want her dead.
To begin with, Butterfly is from a proscribed world. Although she was kidnapped by slavers and is in the Empire through no fault of her own (unless being insufficiently wary of slavers counts as a crime), should her true origins come to the attention of the Empire, Butterfly will be executed. Accordingly, she pursues her post-escape-from slavery career as a transporter of questionable goods out on the periphery of the Empire where she is less likely to be noticed.
Butterfly is aided by her closest and most secret friend, Paladin. Paladin is a Library, an artificial intelligence from the days of the Federation. Paladin is very fond of Butterfly. It is determined to keep her alive despite the zany choices the organic insists on making. Too bad that by being Butterfly’s friend, Paladin may have doomed her.
The Empire’s stance on Libraries is that they are the abominations responsible for the fall of the Federation. While Paladin is sure the Empire is overreacting, simply being an AI is extremely illegal. Knowing about one and not immediately alerting the Empire is also extremely illegal. Good thing for Butterfly that she can only be shot once.
There is no situation so dire poor judgment cannot make it worse. On a whim, Butterfly saves a lone person from a gang of attackers. Too late she realizes she has saved a so-called Hellflower. Hellflowers are thin-skinned, honor-obsessed, and extremely violent. They are not people with whom one willingly entangles oneself.
When the Hellflower gets himself detained, Butterfly compounds her error by breaking the Hellflower out of prison before escaping the planet. The Hellflower turns out to be Valijon Starbringer (although Butterfly prefers to call him Tiggy Stardust), son of Kennor Starbringer. Kennor is the current president of the Azarine Coalition and a VVIP (Very Very Important Person) in the Empire’s affairs. Valijon is also fourteen years old, an adult by his people’s laws but a child by the Empire’s. Arguably, Butterfly kidnaped Valijon when she retrieved him. Add another reason for the Empire to execute her.
The smart thing to do with Butterfly’s homicidal hot potato is to deliver him to his people and let them sort the situation out. Alas, should Valijon die or vanish, it would place his father in a politically untenable position. Powerful people are determined to make sure Valijon is dead. Delivering him to his father will be difficult, perhaps impossible.
Even though the list of crimes for which she could be executed keeps growing, Butterfly still has to make a living. Accordingly, she accepts an illicit cargo, delivery of which should be easily accomplished. It is not. In very short order, Butterfly finds herself eyeballs deep in a deadly conspiracy, one whose stakes are not merely Butterfly’s life, the Empire’s continued existence, but the survival of the human race(s).
This novel is set far enough into the future that humans on several worlds are well on the way towards speciation. Speciation is feeding xenophobia and a tendency to stereotype humans by race. But there has been some progress in tolerance. Back in the days of the Federation, Butterfly would not have been legally a person because at that time only men could be people, whereas now she is not a legal person because she is a barbarian. Progress! Or at least change2.
Poor judgment being the fuel on which plots depend, both protagonists (Butterfly and Paladin) and their little buddy Valijon have compelling reasons to act in ways sure to provide opportunities for thrilling adventure. In no particular order, Valijon isn’t just a member of a homicidally touchy culture, he is an adolescent member of a homicidally touchy culture. Butterfly has never seen a big red button she was not willing to press3. Paladin is the most sensible of the lot but it lacks certain need-to-know details about the transition from Federation to Empire.
This was a very Andre Norton-esque adventure, filled with dead or dying civilizations, surprisingly affordable starflight, a draconian government somehow coexisting with powerful criminal organizations, and thrilling adventures narrated from the very bottom of the social heap4. Not a bad debut novel. In fact, it was notable enough to get a three-in-one omnibus from the Science Fiction Book Club.
If I had done this review last year, I’d have been able to link to a recent edition. However, that edition vanished when publisher Ring of Fire imploded following Eric Flint’s death. Hellflower is out of print.
1: Perhaps a digression about names is in order. The author’s original name was eluki bes shahar (spelled lower-case, although I see this point was lost on most of her publishers, Wikipedia, and ISFDB). To quote Wikipedia,
The publishers of her first novel felt that Eluki Bes Shahar (her legal name at the time) sounded insufficiently English to attract readers, so she adopted the pen-name Rosemary Edghill, (…) which became her legal name in 2004.
Shades of how Nicolas Yermakov became Simon Hawke.
2: The Empire is at least the second civilization living in the ruins of a previous one. The Federation was another. It’s unfortunate that its views about women were shaped by the catastrophe that ended its predecessor. Each successive civilization has lost or abandoned certain technologies. Paladin is very pessimistic about where this will all end.
An objective observer might be skeptical that the Empire as presented could function effectively. Spot on! It does not in fact function effectively and is in the process of slowly collapsing. To better serve its subjects, this is a fact heavily censored.
3: Butterfly is also determined to get revenge on the man who enslaved her, a goal complicated by the facts she wants him to understand why she is angry, while he does not remember her at all and wouldn’t understand what her problem is if he did.
4: Traveller gamemasters in search of plot fodder may find the novel of interest.