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The Phoenix in Flight  (Exordium, book 1)

By Sherwood Smith & Dave Trowbridge 

7 Dec, 2015

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1993’sThe Phoenixin Flight isthe first volume in Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge’sExordium pentology.There is a new edition of this volume, but this review is of the 1993edition, because that is the edition I happen to have on hand.

Eusabian,Lord of Vengeance, avatar of Dol, grumpiest Dol’jharian of all, haslong yearned to punish the Panarchy for defeating Dol’jhar somedecades ago. The main problem facing Eusabian is that the Panarchydraws on the resources of the many races and worlds of the ThousandStars1; Dol’jhar draws on the resources of … Dol’jhar, a cold,bleak, poor planet.

Butnow Eusabian has learned how to exploit the still-functioning relicsof the long-vanished Ur. With the Ur’s instant communications andtheir stupendous power sources in his possession, the balance ofpower has tilted decisively in Eusabian’s favour. The time has comefor his vendetta, his ritual paliach .Which in its purest form ends with the display of the severed head ofthe enemy. 


Thefirst steps in the paliach are the assassinations of the Panarch’sthree 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’sshort work to murder both Galen and Semion; the plot to kill Brandonmisfires, but a well-placed radiation bomb does kill everyone whoattended a certain gala. The victims constitute a surprisingly largefraction of the Panarchy’s government.

Moreunpleasant surprises follow: the Dol’jharian ships and those of theirallies are far more powerful than expected, thanks to the Urtechnology they now command. In a surprisingly short time, thePanarchy forces have been routed and the Panarch himself is capturedby the Dol’jharians.

Allwould be just peachy for Eusabian save for one thing: Brandon is justthe sort of self-centered heir who would skip out on important socialobligations. By avoiding the gala, he has also managed to avoid themassacre at said gala. Alive and on the run, Brandon is the naturalseed around which a resistance could form. 

Regrettably,at least from Eusabian’s point of view, a treacherous underling haspurloined a stolen Ur relic of prodigious power, the Heart of theDemon. Much worse from Eusabian’s perspective, the Heart of the Demonis now in Brandon’s possession.

~oOo~

IfDoyle and MacDonald’s ThePrice of the Stars was Tor’s try at ICan’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars then the very nearly contemporaneous The Phoenixin Flight seemsin some ways to be ICan’t Believe It’s Not Dune .There’s the vast galactic (well, Thousand Star) feudal *sigh*government, the planet of violent religious extremists, theprohibition on intelligent machines2. There are some significantdifferences: Smith and Trowbridge’s setting has aliens whereasHerbert’s did not; the good guys are the galactics, which meansthat the violent theocrats come off even more negatively than theydid in, say, DuneMessiah .

There’sa common trope in space opera; infiltration, even into the securestof secure facilities, is so easy you have to wonder why anyone evenbothers with the sturdy walls, the iron doors, the wanderingkillbots, and the guards. You could rent a nice open-plan villasomewhere, get a much more pleasant working environment for much lessmoney, and not significantly affect the difficulty of sneaking in andthen back out.

Thisis one of the few space operas I have read that actually has anin-story reason why the particular secure facility is so easy for thegood guys to penetrate: the Panarchist palace has only recently beencommandeered by the bad guys and while the bad guys don’t have allthe security codes, the good guys do.

Thebook doesn’t even try to be a standalone, but the cover does honestlyreveal that this is book one of a series. The book is alsointeresting as a physical artefact; at 442 pages, it is shorter thanthat its bulk would indicate. There is probably some boringaccounting reason for this (thicker paper may have been cheaper atthe time) but I have also heard an interesting and entirelyunverified rumour that provides an alternate explanation. In themid-1990s, some in the book trade were convinced that readers weremore 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. 

Theauthors do not burden the reader with shades of gray: the Panarchymay not be all that great and their aristocrats seem to be eager tolatch onto the it’s the system, not us” excuse for variousshortcomings, but the antagonists are much, much worse. It’sbasically the Holy Roman Empire against the Planet of Evil Bastardsand it is not that hard to pick a side.

Thenew editions of the Exordium books can be purchased here.

1:I don’t know if there are literally a thousand stars in the ThousandStars 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 whetherthe milli in millipede is literal or figurative, teachers want aheads up before you pour a bag of millipedes onto their desk so youcan count legs together. I mean, I know that now .

2:There’s a certain similarity between the (off-stage) machineintelligences and the AIs that turn up in the absolutely dreadfulDune sequels that Tor later inflicted on a long-suffering world. I cannotsay 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 authorpublished by Tor was convinced that the reason that Robert Jordan’sbooks sold better than their books was purely because Jordan’s bookslooked longer (because they were longer). This author was said tohave insisted that their books be printed on a bulkier paper stock,which would increase the thickness of the book [4]. This does notseem entirely unreasonable. When I was a bookseller, I noted thatsome customers sought out long books, believing that such books wouldbe less expensive per page. More reading, lower cost. 

Idare not identify the author in question, but I will say this: it wasnot Robert Jordan. 

4:I vaguely recall that there was also an art to choosing a thicknessthat encouraged placing the book face-out over spine-out, or so I wastold. I no longer remember the magic page count. It was one thatmaximized face-out-ness without unduly increasing printing costs. 

Hmmm.Having considered this at greater length, the rule of thumb may haveinvolved a maximum length and not a minimum one. If so, it operatedto encourage shorter books. Judging by the behemoths that came out inthe 1990s, it did so ineffectively.