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(Phoenix in Flight, Ruler of Naught, A Prison Unsought, The Rifter's Covenant, The Thrones of Kronos)
Sherwood Smith and David Trowbridge

High literature they're not, but I found this extended space opera worth the read despite some flaws.

The story is set in the Thousand Suns, a vast interstellar polity founded long ago by people fleeing the oppressive Hegemony that controlled Earth; they still mourn their lost home, and treasure those few relics that connect them to their past. It is ruled by the Panarch Gelasaar hai-Arkad, although "rule" is something of a misnomer for a government founded on a concept called the Covenant of Anarchy. Never explicitly stated in the books, it seems to express the idea that planetary rulers are more or less left to their own devices as long as they leave each other alone--a concession to the realities of interstellar communication and the impossibility of a truly democratic rule over billions of people. Similar are the "Jaspran Polarities," guidelines set down by the first of the Arkad panarchs, the most important of which is this: "Ruler of all, ruler of naught, power unlimited, a prison unsought." This saying encapsulates one of the series' fundamental ideas: that "absolute" rule always depends on others who will carry out one's commands, that a position of command does not entail freedom.

The Thousand Suns are composed of three layers. First are the Douloi, also known as the Ranks of Service--the ruling classes, with their elaborate social rituals and endless infighting. Next are the Polloi, the common folk, who can fight their way to high position through the military or other service, but who for the most part go about their lives untroubled by politics. Finally, the Rifters, the Panarchy's shadow society of pirates, smugglers, and others high-born or low who wished to leave their place in the Panarchy's elaborate social dance behind.

The story is shaped largely by the actions of the dead and by things that happened years ago, which is one of the things I like about it. It gives the characters a real history, albeit one more alluded to than explained (which can be frustrating at times).

The first of the past nodes is Gelasaar's wife, the much-beloved Kyriarch Ilara, killed by treachery during treaty negotiations with Jerrode Eusabian of the planet Dol'jhar, which had broken the Covenant by attacking a neighboring planet and enslaving its inhabitants. Her death was the first part of Eusabian's revenge on the Panarchy for his defeat; he has been nurturing the next for twenty years, and as the first book opens it is coming to fruition.

The second node is an event that occurred some ten years before the opening of the first book, when Gelasaar's eldest son Semion engineered events to ensure that his youngest brother Brandon and Brandon's best friend Markham were thrown out of the Naval Academy for a minor breach of discipline. To all appearances Brandon accepted the only role left to him in the family, that of generally drunken socialite, with a will. Markham' family was ruined, and eventually Markham himself became a Rifter.

The third is the fact that Semion, to maintain control over his second brother, Galen, has been holding the woman Galen loves prisoner on his own planet, Narbon. She is officially his mistress; those who realize the truth have no weapon they can use against the heir. Gelasaar himself does not look closely enough to see, and does not listen to those of his advisors who realize the depth of Semion's ruthlessness.

The fourth is that for a time, Eusabian's only surviving son Anaris was a hostage in the Panarch's household. In his time there he learned much of their ways and the subtlety of their thought, for which Dol'jhar's straightforward savagery was no match. He learned enough to be very dangerous. He also learned that he hated Brandon Arkad, whose practical jokes were often at his expense.

At the opening of the book, the second part of Eusabian's paliach, or revenge (Dol'jharians make an elaborate hobby of vengeance and torture) is about to unfold, encompassing the deaths of Gelasaar's three sons. All but simultaneously Semion is assassinated, Galen killed in a duel, and Brandon....

Brandon is about to speak his Vows of Service and formally assume the duties of adulthood--which in his case, everyone assumes, will mean attending a lot of parties. Brandon, however, does not attend the event, and thereby evades the death planned for him. He has been making his own plans. Ten years of thought (while he played the part of harmless drunk and gadabout under the watch of his oldest brother's spies) have proven that working within the system will avail nothing—so he's going to leave it all behind, find Markham, and rescue Galen's beloved.

These plans are short-circuited by news of his two brothers' deaths, by the fact that Eusabian has acquired theoretically-impossible FTL communication devices and immensely powerful weapons (allowing a single small spacecraft to destroy a naval cruiser or threaten a planet singlehanded) and armed the worst of the Rifters with them, and that he has landed on the Panarchy's home world, the Mandala, proclaimed himself ruler of the Thousand Suns, and taken Gelasaar prisoner in preparation for the final stage of his revenge.

Five books follow a large cast of human and alien, Panarchist, conquerer, and Rifter characters through the unfolding of the attack, the slow regrouping of Panarchist forces and the discovery of how Eusabian accomplished his plan using traitors within the Panarchy and the technology of the long-vanished race called the Ur. It follows Anaris as he begins the inevitable duel with his father (if your heir isn't strong and smart enough to outmaneuver and kill you, they don't deserve to inherit, seems to be the Dol'jharian philosophy), and it paints an intricate picture of the political and personal forces swirling around Brandon, who must first prove himself to his own people, and then somehow lead them to recover the lost.

The size of the cast is one of the few problems I have with these books. There are literally dozens of characters actively tracked, which means that events move rather slowly, and while many of them are great characters, in the end some of them and their subplots don't seem to be worth all that trouble. Another is the fact that we very, very rarely get a chance to look through the eyes of any of the central figures. Brandon himself is particularly elusive; his presence is constant in the lives of the other characters, as friend, lover, leader, or bitter enemy, but we see him almost exclusively through other eyes, and I found that somewhat frustrating (although also something of a welcome change from the fashion for excessively introspective protagonists). My final issue is that by the end of the fifth book the authors seem to be flailing a tiny bit to try to make everything work out; not everyone seems to be acting entirely in character. On the other hand, the final book definitely leaves me with the impression that the authors hoped to write more, so I feel I ought to cut them some slack--they may have had one eye on a future that never developed. (Ed Note: I have since found out by the simple expedient of asking one of the authors [I love the 'net] that there are more books planned, but heaven alone knows when we'll see them.)

These are, on the whole, minor issues beside the fascinating tapestry the authors weave for the readers. There are a lot of things I like, to put it mildly; despite the many characters, most of them are well-drawn and multifaceted, and many of them undergo inner changes over the course of the series. The background is deeply and finely realized and quite satisfying in and of itself. The social rituals of the Douloi are interesting if only because our own are recognizable in them; the authors have formalized and extended the patterns of speech and body language that most of us use unconsciously, and made of it the second language that it truly is. Alien races appear sparingly and are truly alien.

The battle scenes (important part of any space opera) are great fun. One of the reasons I'm such a fan of this series is that they're almost only ones I know of (with C.J. Cherryh) who have actually included some relativistic realities in their setting. Most of the human technology, at least, is actually pretty believable and refreshingly self-consistent, and their military characters are nicely drawn.

In the end, of course, it is a story about people, and while it may paint our species with brighter colors than we deserve--with love and glowing bravery, nobility in leadership and service both, strength born of tragedy and sacrifice, or with villainy implacable in its selfishness and bottomless in its cruelty--one of the reasons we read SF is to see ourselves so depicted, perhaps in the hope that we may, just a little bit, truly be that way. In that respect, these are excellent books. I may go read them again now.

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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson