Thursday, 19 July 2007

Review: The Skolian Empire series by Catherine Asaro

Catherine Asaro has created a classic space-opera world with this Nebula Award-winning series, which is currently at eleven novels and counting. They are set in the far distant future, in which variations of humanity have populated a large number of star systems. The starting point in Asaro's timeline is 4,000 BC, when a group of humans were transported to another planet and helped to develop an advanced civilisation. This was based on the development of psionic abilities, reaching their greatest expression in the Rhon - a family of adepts which formed the Ruby Dynasty. Within a thousand years, space travel had enabled them to form the Ruby Empire, aided by the creation of a psionic web enabling instant communications across human space. This could only be driven and controlled, with the aid of highly sophisticated machinery, by the Rhon. The Empire collapsed after a few centuries, leaving its worlds to develop independently, and it took until the 19th century for them to rediscover interstellar flight. The psions of the Ruby Dynasty had almost died out by then, until a successful Rhon genetic programme re-established them. Further experiments unfortunately produced a different breed of sadistic psions – the Aristos - whose principal satisfaction was gained by feeding on the emotions of tortured psions – and the stronger the psion, the greater the pleasure.

By the time of the stories in the Skolian Empire series – set in approximately 2,200-2,300 AD – the Aristos had formed a powerful empire based on slavery known as the Eubian Concord (aka the Trader Empire) while the remnants of the Ruby Empire had formed the Skolian Imperialate, ruled by an uneasy combination of democratic institutions and the small number of Rhon psions. The Earth had by this time developed interstellar flight and become known to the Skolians and Eubians, but was very much a weak third party in between the two empires, whose relationships were in a state of cold – and occasionally hot – war.

The plots as well as the background follow the classic space-opera format: there are space battles between vast fleets, ancient and little-understood technology, human fighting machines in the enhanced Skolian Jagernauts, awe-inspiring psi powers, and (characteristic of Asaro) a lot of romance (although - unlike in her other fiction - not so much as to dominate the plots). The individual stories are all focused on members of the Ruby dynasty – the Rhon psions. They do not follow a chronological sequence, nor do they all feature the same individuals. Some of the novels are sequels to previous volumes, but others are free-standing. Some are written in the first person, most in the third. This provides a pleasing variety which prevents the stories from becoming too repetitive, although the later novels are, I think, beginning to show signs of 'series fatigue'. The stories are fast-paced, fairly light in tone and relatively short – an easy read.

It is best to start with the first one published and my personal favourite – Primary Inversion – which features one of the strongest and best-realised characters, Sauscony ('Soz'), a young woman who is also a Rhon and a Jagernaut.

This is a very good modern version of the traditional space-opera, and recommended to anyone who enjoys this sub-genre.

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