1987’s In Conquest Born is the first volume in C. S. Friedman’s Azean Empire series. It was the author’s debut novel.
The Azean Empire has the misfortune to border territory claimed by Braxi. Braxi lives for war and conquest. If it concludes a peace treaty, that’s a temporary measure; they’re preparing for the next attack. There have been many comprehensive peace treaties between Azea and Braxi, each as short-lived as the one before.
The latest treaty collapses when Vinir and K’Siva, high-born Braxin, birth a son. The Braxana feel strongly that it would be inauspicious to name the child in peacetime. Braxin forces descend on an Azean colony world to celebrate Zatar’s birth.
Zatar grows into an ambitious and talented warlord. This would not bode well for Azea were it not that one well-placed family has also produced a capable child. But there is a slight problem.
The Azeans are racists. Although Darmel lyu Tukone and Suan lir Aseirin look like proper Azeans, their child Anzha does not. This cannot be tolerated. When the parents decline to euthanize their daughter, the Council of Justice decrees that she can never be a citizen and must always be an outcast.
Zatar infiltrates the Empire and assassinates Anzha’s parents, who are crucial to Azea’s defense efforts. Anzha is only six years old; the sudden shock sends her into a coma … and also triggers her latent telepathic abilities. The Institute that studies and trains psychics is happy to take charge of the young orphan. Anzha is too precious a treasure for the Empire to banish, whatever the Council of Justice decrees.
Something else is triggered by the same trauma: Anzha’s determination to destroy the man who murdered her family. While Anzha may be a nobody to Zatar, the child he ignored while eliminating her parents, she knows who he is. Her abilities make it possible for her to shape Azean strategy and to aim it directly at Zatar.
Anzha proves her worth to Azea when she becomes the linchpin of a scheme that sends out ships helmed by pilots telepathically linked to her. Braxi captures some pilots and susses out the scheme. Braxi, and Zatar, now know that they are opposed by a powerful telepath.
Zatar decides to take out the telepath. It will be a challenge, but Braxana love a challenge.
There are many parallels between this novel and the Japanese novel and anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Given that the two were published more or less at the same time, one in the US and one in Japan, in different languages, one has to assume this is pure coincidence. And perhaps zeitgeist.
This novel has an eye-catching Michael Whelan cover but I was unable to find any high quality online version. Ah well. The original artwork is here.
In Conquest Born is a debut novel. That shows in an intermittent lack of focus. Friedman introduces a number of minor characters, using them to flesh out her imagined world and clarify some plot points. All this distracts from the main Anzha-Zatar plot. Admittedly, the book is over five hundred pages long, which allows a certain latitude to diversions. (Note that such a humongous SF novel would have been almost unthinkable a generation earlier.) Still, I think it would have been a better book with more incisive editing.
(Mind you, as digressive narration goes, this novel is a sprat compared to the sprawling three-decker novels of the 19th century.)
Friedman’s galaxy was seeded with humans so long ago that nobody remembers the event, although they can deduce that it happened because pretty much every world that can support humans does and some that cannot once did. It’s clear that these humans did not evolve independently, as the fauna of the colonized worlds differ utterly from Homo sapiens. There’s no boundless frontier full of unoccupied worlds. Expansionist cultures usually expand by being complete bastards to anyone weaker1.
Neither of the cultures featured in this novel are appealing. The Azeans are racists; the Braxana are racist thugs. The Azeans would be better neighbours than the Braxana. They wouldn’t incinerate a world and rape any survivors to celebrate an heir’s birth. But the Azeans wouldn’t be comfortable neighbors, not by any means.
Zatar, like most of his kind, is a monster bent on conquest. Anzha is as close as the book comes to a sympathetic figure, but even she is willing to use entire worlds as pawns (doomed to destruction) in the struggle with Braxi. So I cannot say that I liked the protagonists or their cultures. The prose is pretty and the narrative is brisker than one might expect from the size of this doorstop, but that wasn’t enough to charm me.
Too bleak and operatic for my taste but your mileage may vary.
1: Shades of Enchantress from the Stars . Also the Traveller RPG, if anyone needs an alternate campaign setting.