Review: Undercity by Catherine Asaro

There are a few authors for whom I will buy (or request) every new book without even glancing at the blurb. Among these is Catherine Asaro. I did take a quick look at the cover copy for Undercity, but I will admit that when I saw the words ‘Skolian Empire’, glee fuzzed the rest. I did realise this novel is more peripheral to the saga, that it in fact begins a new series, but it represents a piece of the world I have come to adore and that is enough.

At age fifteen, Bhaajan escaped the slums of Cries by enlisting with Imperial Space Command. Now retired, Major Bhaajan works as a private investigator. Her reputation for due diligence and never giving up attracts an influential client who transports her back to the planet of her birth for an interview. Bhaajan hasn’t been back to Raylicon in years, but she hasn’t forgotten where she came from, which may be what her client is counting on.

The noble houses of Raylicon are so far removed from the slums of the City of Cries, they may as well be on another planet. House Majda perhaps even more so. In a reflection of history long past, they seclude their males, hiding them away under guard. It is a crime to even touch one of these men. One of the house princes has gone missing and the matriarch has hired Bhaajan to find him.

Using her knowledge of the Undercity, the canals and aqueducts that form the slums she came from, Bhaajan begins her search for clues. She finds little has changed since she left. Crime is still the number one form of commerce and children are still running in gangs. But a key component of the underground society seems to have broken down. They might not have much, but the dust gangs have always looked after their own. Now children are suffering neglect, the adults are fighting and the whispers no longer carry all the secrets.

Bhaajan finds her prince but, in doing so, she uncovers a much more sinister plot, one that threatens the Undercity more than starvation and neglect. She cannot ignore the children who begin to follow her, nor the man she left behind seven years before.

Undercity is divided into three books or parts. The first has been previously released as a novella called “The City Of Cries”. The second two parts follow directly on from the first, expanding upon the first story, exposing the plot responsible for Prince Dayj Majda’s capture. Undercity does read like a complete novel and, for those unfamiliar with the Skolian Empire, it would make a fantastic place to start. While the psi-talents of the Ruby dynasty do feature prominently in this book, the narrative isn’t bogged down by the history of the dynasty or the mechanics of their talents. Instead, Asaro has written an engrossing mystery.

Our hero, Major Bhaajan, is typical of her characters in that she is strong, talented and capable but not perfect. She has flaws and foibles and both are exposed as she first searches for Prince Dayj, then struggles with the decision she made seven years earlier to leave the planet of her birth. Circumstances conspire to keep her on Raylicon this time around and she has to choose between two hearts, professional and private. She’ll discover they’re one and the same.

As a long-time fan of ‘The Skolian Saga’, I really enjoyed Undercity. As always, Asaro delivered a tale rich with the embedded history of her world and bright with technical marvels. Her characters were engaging and intriguing and there is even a bit of romance. What really touched my heart was Bhaaj’s interaction with the children of the aqueducts. I spent the last fifty pages of the book sniffling into a tissue. I’m looking forward to reading the continuing adventures of Major Bhaajan.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: The Quantum Rose

 The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro.

 I usually upgrade my ratings of Catherine Asaro’s books after I think about them for a while, so I’ll start this one at four stars.* It felt like a three, as in I liked the book enough to finish it, but I wasn’t blown away. I didn’t love it. But afterwards, I thought about it and that’s what always happens with Asaro’s books. I think about them.

I do love her Skolian Saga. I love the back story, the lost colony scenarios, the space opera, the romance and the Ruby heirs. Not every book is what I want it to be, but I didn’t write them, eh? My favourites, for the record, are Primary Inversion and The Ruby Dice. I also like The Last Hawk, mostly because I read it after The Ruby Dice. That was another book that I had to sit on for a while, though. Reading it felt like a bit of a trial at times. It was long and Kelric suffers so much. But it really does build a character who is like no other in science fiction. And that’s Catherine Asaro’s specialty: building characters.

She builds worlds, too, and Balumil, the planet where she met the cast of characters for The Quantum Rose is one of her most interesting. It’s biosculpted rather than terraformed and the humans left to colonise it are engineered to cope with the long days and the years-long seasons that are the result of an elliptical orbit. I’m not terribly scientific, but that’s how I read it and it sounded pretty neat. As an aside, seeing as I’m already digressing, Asaro’s books are always full of hard maths and science. I sometimes grasp it, but not always. Rather than feel stupid, I’m usually just in awe of her intellect, though.

Kamoj is governor of Argali, which is a province, for want of a better term. For fifteen years she has been betrothed to Jax Ironbridge, who is governor of a larger province. But there’s a new noble in town, the mysterious Havyrl Lionstar, and when he makes a bid for Kamoj’s hand, he inadvertently upsets the delicate balance of politics on Balumil. What follows reads something like a historical romance set in a science fiction future.

What usually bogs me down in Asaro’s novels is the sometimes repetitive explanations of facts, as if the author isn’t sure if we get it. In this instance, it’s the fact that Kamoj and everyone on her planet were engineered not only to adapt to the difficult environment, but to serve as slaves. They are a subservient people who bow to pressure, give succor to others even when they are hurting, and generally live to please others, often at detriment to themselves. It’s an interesting view of genetic engineering and a concept that takes the usual super soldier twist and does something else. What makes it more interesting here, in this novel, is that this is exactly how the Ruby Dynasty was created. The dynasty Havyrl Lionstar is part of. So, Vyrl has a lot in common with his new young wife. This helps both of them adjust to their change of circumstances, and because they resonate together, he as a Ruby Scion and Kamoj as an empath, together they are able to override their ‘programming’, for the good of her world and his.

If you haven’t read Catherine Asaro before, or are unfamiliar with the Skolian Saga, you might be a little lost about now. One thing Asaro does do in each book of the saga is inject enough information to catch up the casual reader. I often chafe at having to read through it again and again, but sometimes I pick up a new fact or two. The edition of The Quantum Rose I read also has a nice family chart for the Ruby Dynasty and some explanation of the science behind the unique naming conventions on the planet Balumil and how the author tied them into the story.

The reason I decided to bump this up to four stars, even though it’s not close to my favourite entry in the saga is mostly because of the story behind the story. The stuff that got me thinking: the examination of genetic engineering—the pitfalls and morality and what it all might mean for our future. As always, I also enjoyed Asaro’s commentary on the male and female roles. She has definite ideas here. On the surface, her characters fit an expected mold, but underneath they are always much more complex, and that’s what makes The Quantum Rose worth reading.

*Review cross-posted from Goodreads. When writing reviews, I rarely consider a rating. I prefer to talk about what worked for me, as a reader, rather than try to quantify the experience. Goodreads uses a rating system, however, and I use that to sort my favourites.