Review: Primary Inversion

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Primary Inversion (Saga of the Skolian Empire, #1)Pri­ma­ry Inver­sion by Cather­ine Asaro

My rat­ing:

At the begin­ning of the year I decid­ed to active­ly seek out and read SF&F writ­ten by women or with women occu­py­ing the tit­u­lar roles. As you may imag­ine, when I first learned about Cather­ine Asaro , a female author who writes hard SF while read­ing the Com­plete Guide to Writ­ing Sci­ence Fic­tion, I was excit­ed and impressed and went in imme­di­ate search of books writ­ten by her. Aside from being an author and dancer, Asaro has degrees in chem­istry and physics from Har­vard. I felt imme­di­ate­ly assured that her books would give me that blend of believ­able SF and intrigu­ing nar­ra­tive I love. How­ev­er, not until I start­ed to read Pri­ma­ry Inver­sion did I real­ize that she can also be billed as a romance author.

This is where things sort of went bad for me.

I’m not sure if this is the point at which I am sup­posed to hand over my hon­orary girl’s club mem­ber­ship card, but I have a dif­fi­cult time with strong ele­ments of romance in my books. This is a per­son­al pref­er­ence. More accu­rate­ly, I can tol­er­ate romance if it is taste­ful, sub­tle, and does not make up the bulk of the sto­ry. Not quite so with PI, but this is not my only issue with this book.

It’s not that I hate romance… it’s just that I do. Ha. Specif­i­cal­ly, I don’t appre­ci­ate the over sen­ti­men­tal­ized, sap­py, UNREALISTIC, heart-rung qual­i­ty romance nov­els fre­quent­ly present us with. Even more specif­i­cal­ly, I pre­fer sto­ries where­in the romance is a hap­pen­stance occur­rence and not the crux of the tale.

Pri­ma­ry Inver­sion (PI) is the first nov­el in the Saga of the Sko­lian Empire series. PI is a hard SF, space opera, polit­i­cal intrigue and, yes, romance nov­el. As I typ­i­cal­ly do with my reviews, I will try to dis­cuss the mer­its of the book as I see and under­stand them with­out spoil­ing it for those who even­tu­al­ly chose to go on and read it.

PI is writ­ten in first per­son POV in the voice of the main char­ac­ter, Saus­cony Val­do­ria (Soz). Soz is an intel­li­gent, pow­er­ful super sol­dier-type who leads her own fight­er squadron. She is attrac­tive and at forty-eight years old looks about half that. Part of her super sol­dier prowess is due to her many cyber­net­ic implants, but also in part to her genet­ic make-up. She is Rhon (I still hon­est­ly don’t get it) and this makes her, in addi­tion to every­thing else, a pow­er­ful empath. She is fun­ny and spunky, bright and quick wit­ted. Soz is also the sis­ter of Kurj, Imper­a­tor of the Sko­lian Impe­ri­alate, and she is next in line to take his place. What this means is that she is old mon­ey wealthy and prac­ti­cal­ly roy­al­ty.

Her biggest inter­nal con­flict is a ten year old psy­cho­log­i­cal wound she car­ries after hav­ing been once kid­napped and raped by an Aris­to, a race that derives plea­sure from the pain of empaths.

At first I thought it was the first per­son POV that I didn’t like, but then I real­ized that in this case, first per­son wasn’t the issue so much as the char­ac­ter of Soz her­self. She is quite the Mary Sue:

  • Very Beau­ti­ful
  • Strange­ly col­ored hair
  • All men want her
  • Even men who don’t like her want her
  • An espe­cial­ly skilled pilot/leader/soldier
  • Heiress appar­ent to the Sko­lian Impe­ri­alate
  • Prac­ti­cal­ly roy­al­ty
  • Wealthy
  • Trag­ic past (rape) she is still trau­ma­tized by mak­ing her vul­ner­a­ble at just the right sit­u­a­tions
  • High­ly potent empath (Empa­thy is her super­nat­ur­al pow­er fur­ther strength­en by cyber­net­ic implants? Although there are oth­ers with this pow­er, hers is par­tic­u­lar­ly strong and well-honed.)
  • Pre­ten­tious name — Saus­cony Val­do­ria? Real­ly?
  • Incor­rupt­ible
  • Near­ly fifty but looks twen­ty-some­thing
  • Rec­og­nized her true love via ecsta­sy induc­ing mind meld

Dur­ing the course of this book, which spans over a few months, Soz enters into three rela­tion­ships. The first and most appro­pri­ate is with a man who even­tu­al­ly becomes a para­plegic. He breaks up with her so as not to destroy her life and prospects. Of course she was pre­pared to forego her com­fort and her posi­tion for him, but… Her sec­ond rela­tion­ship is with a twen­ty some­thing year old who seems ter­ri­bly naïve. Their rela­tion­ship was hard­ly explored out­side of their cud­dling and romps. He was her gold­en haired boy­toy. The last rela­tion­ship was with a twen­ty year old named Jaib­ri­ol Qox, who she met in the begin­ning of the book. JQ wasn’t just naïve but he was whol­ly inex­pe­ri­enced and also, being Rhon, had this imme­di­ate men­tal con­nec­tion with her that meant that they were soul mates. The prob­lem with this was that JQ is the heir appar­ent of the oppos­ing side a galac­tic war.

Yes, what we have here is a Romeo and Juli­et-ish tale.

I don’t like Romeo and Juli­et.

I don’t like my char­ac­ters per­fect and awe­some and unflawed.

I don’t like spend­ing an entire book stuck in the head of a char­ac­ter whose stuck on them­selves. She spends a lot of time stuck in Woe-is-me-land and I can’t stand that place. Not only that, rape or not, I have a dif­fi­cult time feel­ing as sor­ry for her as she does for her­self. As a mat­ter of fact, there was a scene in which, while drunk, she “mis­tak­en­ly” held a loaded weapon to her head. I kin­da wished she would have pulled the trig­ger. Oh, the mis­ery.

I’d also like to note here that JQ is the much younger male mir­ror image of Soz. In oth­er words, Gary Stu. See all those Mary Sue traits list­ed above? Yep. That’s him with the odd adjust­ment here and there.

So, you’re like­ly won­der­ing why I fin­ished this book. Well, in Asaro’s defense, and mine, PI presents so many inter­est­ing and fresh con­cepts and ideas that I can’t declare it a com­plete loss. The prob­lem is that the ideas that I per­son­al­ly found inter­est­ing, were either not well devel­oped of weight­ed in sim­ple yet exces­sive nar­ra­tive.

Again, first per­son brought me too close to this char­ac­ter who I did not care for. I believe that had this been writ­ten in third per­son, despite my dis­like for Soz, I could have stom­ached her.

As far as the SF ele­ments go, there are a ton of detailed tech­ni­cal descrip­tions that instead of adding to the over­all depth of the sto­ry actu­al­ly slowed the pac­ing. I skipped huge chunks to get back into the fray because at some point I’d just glaze over. Part of the issue, I believe, is the fact that PI has too many things going on. You know, less is more, and all that jazz. We have empath­ic beings, racial issues (although every­one in this book seemed human and white… don’t even get me start­ed on that), cul­tur­al issues, strong mil­i­tary ele­ments, space trav­el, polit­i­cal intrigue, cyber­net­ic implan­ta­tion, AI

About halfway in, I start­ed think­ing about McMas­ters-Bujold with her sub­tle use of tech­ni­cal ver­biage and easy believ­able roman­tic ele­ments. I missed that while read­ing PI. I know it isn’t entire­ly fair to com­pare the two authors, but the sim­i­lar­i­ties and the dif­fer­ences are strik­ing, I think, and Asaro could learn some­thing from McMas­ters-Bujold about sub­tle­ty and believ­able rela­tion­ship pro­gres­sion.

For me, the crux of the issue is that this sto­ry with all of its polit­i­cal intrigue and SF ele­ments, which I’d nor­mal­ly enjoy, appears to have been woven to sup­port these unlike­ly romances as opposed to the romances occur­ring as the nat­ur­al result of what hap­pens when two attrac­tive unat­tached and com­pat­i­ble peo­ple are thrown togeth­er. Deus Ex Machi­na is shame­less­ly and ruth­less­ly employed here and in the course of one tale is so over used as to become absolute­ly unac­cept­able.

The unfor­tu­nate past rape of Soz is a loom­ing ele­ment in this tale, as it col­ors Soz’s future expe­ri­ences. I know that rape hap­pens in real life, that it can alter how a woman sees her­self, how she feels about the world around her and that it col­ors future rela­tion­ships. Rape is trag­ic and hor­rif­ic and unac­cept­able no mat­ter what. That said, I don’t object to the inclu­sion of such a trag­ic ele­ment in a sto­ry if employed with the sen­si­tiv­i­ty it deserves. How­ev­er, in this case I do resent its use as it feels like a pil­lar upon which to prop the pro­tag­o­nist whose char­ac­ter is annoy­ing, weak­ly con­struct­ed, and paper thin.
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