K.B. Wagers’ Behindthe Throne, firstin the IndrananWar Series, isthe story of a plucky gunrunner who rises to become the heir to thethrone using only her wits, courage, and the fact that she is thesole surviving child of the reigning empress. It’s a rags-to-richesstory that makes me wonder “why is so much SF inherentlyreactionary?”
Yearsago, Hail Bristol walked away from her family and Indranan imperialpolitics, disheartened after her hunt for her father’s murderer endedin failure. Unfortunately for Hail, imperial politics did not walkaway from her, which is why when the book opens she is lying in apool of gore (her own), having barely survived an assassinationattempt.
She’sluckier than her sisters and her niece, which means that Hail is nowthe only remaining legitimate heir. That in turn means Hail has nochoice but to return to her home world Pashti and imperial politics.It’s not that she’s suddenly become a dutiful daughter; hermother has sent a heavily armed elite squad to drag Hail back to thecourt of worlds.
Oncehome on Pashti, Hail discovers a complication the Imperial court wasvery careful to keep secret; Hail won’t have the luxury of slowlyreacquainting herself with imperial politics. Her mother the Empresshas Shakti dementia, which is particularly aggressive and invariablylethal. The gunrunner turned Heir will have to hit the groundrunning.
Butat least she will have the distraction of incessant attempts on herlife. Her sisters and her niece are dead; the empress is doomed …and the shadowy figures who have been picking off the royal familyone by one are free to focus their full energies on Hail.
Adetail that I would have blithely passed over twenty years ago: theIndranan Empire is some 2500 years old, and (as far as I can tell)has adhered not only to the same matriarchal culture but to the samedynasty for millennia. That’s a remarkable degree of stability; thereare terrestrial polities that have had comparable lifespans—but not many. All of these long-livedoutliers have evolved over time. Not the Indranans. That strikes me as highly implausible. What about you?
Stabilitylooms large in the worldbuilding here. The Indranans may sneer at thedemocratic chaos of the Solarian Conglomerate, but the Conglomeratesettled Pashti three thousandyears ago. This sort of extreme stability is far from rare in sciencefiction: Dune’s Old Empire lasted ten thousand years, Foundation’s Galactic Empire lasted twelve thousand years before its collapse, andthe Norstrilia Instrumentality of Mankind not only matched theGalactic Empire, it never fell. Perhaps stasis makes worldbuildingsimpler.
Inever got the feeling that Hail earns her victories. She gains highoffice not because she shows any particular talent for the job oreven a driving desire for it, but because her mother happens to beempress. She becomes the last heir standing in part because she ishard to kill, but also because the people around her are willing tosacrifice their lives to preserve Hail’s. Other authors have madesimilar situations work — the protagonist in TheGoblin Emperor is handed the throne through no particular virtue of his own, forexample — so this is not an unworkable idea for a book. Thisparticular example just seems to be missing something.
Thisis castle opera as depicted by an author who has taken the POV of theelite. The fact that Hail spent years as a criminal on the edge ofsociety does not seem to have left her with much sympathy for thelittle people. Hail embraces her inflexible, hierarchical societywholeheartedly. There are would-be reformers but they exist mainly tomake the list of suspects longer. The revolution I ordered neverarrived.
Inthe last week, Facebook’s On This Day offered up a post wherein Igrumbled that the next SF book I read better not be yet anotherfeudal state IN SPAAACE. I would guess that authors love thenarrative simplicity of feudal societies (in part because fictionalfeudal societies are ridiculously simple toys compared to historicalfeudal states). I can understand why authors make these choices, butthey annoy me more every time I encounter them.
Youmay disagree. If so, Behindthe Throne isavailable here.