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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Seasoned

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Muna left the apartment she shared with her daughter Bilqis just five minutes before the start of curfew.  This was not the first time that Muna, in her way, did something to challenge the organism of their government.  She had done far worse than break curfew, but Bilqis didn’t know this.  An unspoken understanding existed between the mother and daughter, wherein Bilqis wouldn’t ask the difficult probing questions, and Muna wouldn’t lie.

The understanding had been a comfortable one, until this night.

The message came through on Muna’s wrist-com, the blue light blinking like a tiny strobe, and as usual Muna took the message in another room, leaving Bilqis to finish her dinner alone.  She hated doing that but it was necessary if Bilqis was going to maintain her precious blissful ignorance.  Not that Muna wanted her daughter to be the kind of person who consciously filtered the obvious, the ugly, the tragic realities of the world they inhabited in favor of self-imposed fantasy, but Bilqis wasn’t prepared and Muna couldn’t fight that.

The call was from Sister Mary, abbess of the convent of the Church of the Blessed Maidens.  They’d been friends for years, although in disagreement about how to approach the new ordinances that were systematically closing all the houses of worship.

At least until now.

“The sisters are scattered, living wherever they can find a parishioner brave enough to take them in.  Three of the sisters slept in the park last night.”  Sister Mary’s voice faded into pained sobs.  “I don’t know what to do?”

“I do.”  Muna lowered her voice an octave, kept her emotions in check.  “I can help you find a place for the sisters.  I can help you make things right.”

“But I don’t…”

Voice lower still, “Are you prepared to do what you never thought you could?” Jaw clentched, Muna waited for her friend to do what they had all done at some time in the past, resign herself to the truth, that there were more ways to make a point than talking, that only the merciful heeded begging.  Expulsion would happen to them all soon enough.  The manner of worship, the name of faith was irrelevant. As much as she hated to hear that the sisters were expulsed from their home, their place of worship gutted, twelve fresh and able bodies and minds would soon be added to their numbers, refreshing the resistance.

Muna returned to the kitchen, bag slung across her body and scarf in hand.  “I have to go out,” she announced as she as she forked a last bit of potato and onion into her mouth.

“It’s late. It’s nearly time for the curfew,” said Bilqis.

“It can’t be helped,” said Muna wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Where are you going?”

Bilqis had never asked before and the question caused Muna to pause in her actions momentarily.  “To help a friend,” she said expertly wrapping the scarf around her head and shoulders.

“Can’t you go in the morning after curfew has lifted?” Bilqis stared up at her mother. “I’ve heard that these days the Authority are doing more than fining people for breaking curfew.”

“I know what the Authority is capable of but I am not going to be intimidated into not living my life.”  Muna considered her daughter for several seconds.  She considered telling her daughter the truth. At twenty-six years old, wasn’t Bilqis now seasoned enough in the ways of the world, their tenuous existence, to finally know the truth.  This is what she’d always wanted, for her daughter to join her in the fight, for her daughter to want to fight.  “And neither should you.”  Muna turned to leave.  “Don’t wait up for me.”

Bilqis followed Muna to the door.  “Where you’re going, will you be safe?”

Muna frowned. “What does it mean to be safe in fifth ward?”  When Bilqis failed to respond, Muna smiled. “Don’t worry, okay? Nothing is going to happen. Besides I know how to take care of myself.”

Muna hoped she was telling the truth.

*****

A short written in connection with my current WIP The Hinterlands: Bilqis for Sunday Scribblings. Todays’s word is Seasoned.

Witness

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Without looking up Dr. Keating motioned for Bilqis to sit in the worn leather chair opposite from her. “One moment,” she said, as she hammered out a message on the keyboard.  “I’ve got to finish this report.”  She glanced up, a half smile on her thin face, “We all have someone we must answer to.  Myself included.”

Bilqis had always been amazed that such a small room, at 9×9 feet, only just large enough for her to lie end to end without being able to touch both walls, could be made to look so spacious.  Dr. Keating had once explained that it was the absence of clutter, which she abhorred, and the addition of a few carefully chosen pieces of classic furniture and spare yet clean art work, that made all the difference.  Fifth Ward General, a city run hospital, would have never allocated the funding to decorate Dr. Keating’s office in the manner it was, so she’d likely spent her own money to affect the dark sophistication. It was lame enough that they wouldn’t even give the most dedicated medical director to ever serve Fifth Ward General a larger office, but they hadn’t even afforded her the honor of having her name stenciled on the door.

Dr. Keating sat back with her hands in her lap and pressed Bilqis with her tight gray eyes for nearly a minute before finally speaking.  “I saw something interesting on the news this morning.”

“Interesting?”  Certainly Keating had not called her into her office to discuss the news. She’d always been fairly genial but…

“When I say interesting, what I really mean to say is, I saw you.”

“I’m sorry.  I don’t understand. I haven’t given any interviews.”

The gray eyes narrowed. “You were at the Church of the Blessed Maidens yesterday, during the expulsion.”

Bilqis’s brows descended a fraction as she recalled the events of the previous day.  She had merely been a passerby, a witness.

“I didn’t know you were a member of that church.”

“I’m not,” said Bilqis a bit too quickly, too tersely.  “I mean that’s not my…”

“Your faith? “

Bilqis nodded and then to clarify, “Correct.  I am not a member of that church.  It’s just coincidence that I happened to be passing by when the Authority expelled them from their building.”  Bilqis closed her eyes a moment against the memory of the black clad Authority soldiers as they piled the church furniture and literature on the sidewalk and set it ablaze.  Bilqis thought about the elder nun, skin as thin and pale as parchment, who begged them to show mercy, but was instead pushed to the concrete by a stone-face soldier, her knees shredded and bloodied.  “What they did, I don’t know why, but it was wrong.  I wanted to, but I couldn’t walk away.”

“Why?”

“My mother always told me to at least bear witness.  At least.”

Dr. Keating ran a hand through wiry hair now almost entirely gray.  It had been the color of chocolate when they’d met three years earlier.  Three years earlier Dr. Keating’s face had looked ten years younger.  Bilqis could never understand why such a woman, from a family of privileged researchers and entrepreneurs would continue to suffer the challenges of life and work in the Fifth Ward.  But here she was, a twenty year veteran.  Bilqis didn’t want to be like that.  She’d been born in Fifth Ward and she’d had enough.  She wanted out.  One day.

“I’ll tell you a little known fact, Dr. Haq.  I am a member of that church, and proudly so, but I am careful about who I let know this.  Faith is a relic, they say.”  She shifted in her chair and flexed her neck until a bone cracked loudly.  “More than a relic, actually.  Faith is a nuisance, so it has been said, and a hindrance to progression and true enlightenment.”

Bilqis sat forward poised to speak but unsure what she would say.  Dr. Keating waved her off.

“I want great things for you Dr. Haq and as your mentor it is my job to guide you where I can.”  She leaned forward with her elbows on the desk.  “I don’t really care what you believe.  That is your business and not mine to judge, but if you’re going make it out of this shit hole of a city you’re going to have to cooperate with the powers that be, or at least pretend to.  Keep your faith close to your chest and if you cannot do that, then at least try not to be captured on film.”

*****

A short written in connection with my current WIP The Hinterland Chronicles: Bilqis for Three Word Wednesday.  Today’s words are Cooperate, Lame, Terse.