I previously reviewed Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire space-opera series in July 2007 (see the review list in the panel on the left) so I won't repeat the background to the stories here. Suffice to say that The Ruby Dice is the twelfth novel in the series, with a thirteenth (Diamond Star) already published and due out in paperback shortly.
The Ruby Dice focuses on two individuals: Kelric, the Rhon psion Skolian Imperator, and Jaibriol III, the Eubian Emperor. As leaders of the two great and fundamentally opposed interstellar empires, they personify the constant struggle between the slave-owning Eubians and the Skolians. All is not as it seems, however; unknown to the Eubians, Jaibriol is the son not just of the previous Emperor but also of the former Skolian Imperator, and he is a powerful psion - a fact which would lead to his instant deposition and death or slavery if it became known. Kelric also has a major secret; that in a previous period of his life (recounted in The Last Hawk, the seventh book of the series) he had been held as a prisoner on the restricted planet Coba, where he had not only learned to play the culture-dominating dice game of Quis to its highest level, he had also fathered two children.
The plot of The Ruby Dice starts a decade after both Kelric and Jaibriol had inherited their respective titles. Both men are separately determined to try to agree a peace treaty despite powerful internal opposition, and the viewpoint alternates between them as they scheme and take major risks to achieve this. The story makes a rather slow start, as it contains numerous infodumps to apprise new or forgetful readers of the background to the series and the events so far. Personally, I would much rather have this contained within a prologue which could be skipped if not needed, allowing the story to plunge straight into the plot. As it happens there is a prologue, but this has a different function, recounting some events a year before the plot starts. Once underway, however, Asaro's story-telling skills drew me in as usual.
For me, the scenes set in the Eubian court are far more fascinating than the Skolian episodes. Jaibriol is under intense pressure, not just from the normal deadly intrigues but also in trying to maintain the mental defences which prevent the Eubians from realising that he is one of the despised Rhon psions. A marvellous major character is his wife Tarquine, vastly older than himself and a ruthless and brilliant manipulator of the court on his behalf. The author has a lot of fun with the oblique and coded use of court language, direct speech being considered acceptable only among lovers - or to slaves. For instance, the comment "Paris is a decadent city, I have no desire to tour France again" actually means "the incomplete Treaty of Paris with the Skolians was a bad idea and not worth pursuing". Similarly, "Corbal values the dawn. He would never let its radiance dim" means "Corbal will stand by his slave mistress (named Sunrise) and would never abandon her".
I mentioned in my previous review that the later novels were beginning to show signs of the fatigue which almost always afflicts such a long series of novels set in the same universe. Certainly the pace has slowed somewhat as the author selects different facets of her creation to examine in more detail. However, the variety which her approach permits is ably used to maintain interest and prevent the setting becoming stale. The Skolian Empire series is a major achievement, and each new book remains on my "must buy" list.