(2013) John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard, Headline, £12.99, hrdbk, 407pp, ISBN 978-1-472-20963-4
Two factions are in contention for control of a newly acquired planet in an expansionist interstellar empire, already rocked by civil war. The faction that controls the planet is ousted by the other with the help of a paranormal sisterhood, which is gaining control by marrying its members to key personnel. The new rulers instigate a programme of repression against rebel elements in the subject people, forcing them to withdraw from the capital to wild, remote regions. Under pressure, the child of the ousted governor begins to develop paranormal abilities, falls into the hands of the rebels and gradually begins to win their trust in the wilderness, while forming a romantic relationship with one of them…
It is not what you think it is. The planet is Earth, not Arrakis; the contending factions are the Military and the Diplomats, not the Atreides and the Harkonnens; and the author is not Frank Herbert. I was 17 when Dune began in Analog, and I was immediately captivated. Although this novel is aimed at young adult readers, I do not think that the 4-page introduction would have had the same effect on me at that age. It goes on like that throughout the book – each time a new topic comes up, we get a couple of paragraphs of impersonal information. Only two pages after that 4-page introduction, we get two more pages beginning "The Illyri Military had established many of its bases on the sites of great fortresses from Earth's past…" And on page 29, "The Empire had explored over one hundred systems, each targeted because it contained a habitable planet with life forms…" and so on, so often that it becomes first predictable and then irritating. Yes, Frank Herbert prefaces his chapters with quotations and commentaries, but they're quotations and commentaries from within the action, shedding light on it and drawing us deeper into it. That 4-page introduction has a surprise ending where we learn that it has been written by one of the invaders, but all the other passages of exposition are anonymous. About half-way through the book they begin to make comments on the information, but they are still impersonal, and they become predictable in their turn… And then irritating.
There are other distractions. Perhaps fewer of today's young adult readers have had to 'do' Shakespeare in the depth that my generation did, but characters with names like Gradus, Andrus, Vena, Sedulus and Syrene kept making me think of the Roman plays and with constant references to the Illyri, I kept hearing Jimmy Edwards and Beryl Reid in the BBC radio production of Twelfth Night, seeing Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio in the television production, and thinking of the teacher who thought I'd be perfectly type-cast as Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek.
There is little to pick at from the hard SF viewpoint. The only real error is on p.359, where it appears that the star 55 Cancri is a planet in the Alpha Centauri system (not even in the same constellation!). At first I was puzzled why shuttles taking off from Edinburgh to rendezvous with starships would go northwest towards Iceland, and I wondered if it was a throwback to the 1950s, before civilian big jets, when contrails going that way over Scotland were usually US military. But the high-inclination orbit is presumably to maintain surveillance over all the inhabited parts of the Earth, and its retrograde because their ultimate sanction is kinetic weapons, like the aliens of Niven and Pournelle's Footfall.
I had guessed quite early on that the Illyri shuttles used methane as reaction mass, finally confirmed in still another chunk of exposition on the same page. ("The harvesting of methane meant that Illyri ships travelling without using wormholes did not have to carry as much fuel for their flights…") The energy source is nuclear fusion, but presumably the shuttles run on broadcast power because there is no talk of shielding. What is surprising, when they can achieve single-stage flight to retrograde orbit, is that they cannot maintain flight at all if one of their two engines fails. It is like Bob Shaw's famous description of the twin-engined Short Skyvan's limitations: "In the event of an engine failure, the aircraft will demonstrate a negative rate of climb…"For intimidation and retaliation the Illyri rely mainly on biological weapons, life-forms brought from different planets, but unfortunately types we have seen on screen in Star Trek, Buffy and Stargate SG-1. Their ultimate sanction is to destroy a city, apparently with a kinetic weapon as above, and the object lesson they select is Rome, with a derisory 24 hours' notice when they have already thrown our transport and communications into confusion. The global reaction from Christians is to split into factions arguing about whether or not the Illyri have been created by God (p.43). The hotbeds of the Resistance are the Highlands and the East End of Glasgow, not surprisingly, but on meeting a Resistance member with Celtic tattoos, the hero does not think 'an enraged Catholic' but 'that used to be a football club'. Later we learn that Rangers and Celtic supporters have made common cause, but it is because the Illyri have banned football, not because they have at last found common religious ground.
Since they get their resources from lifeless worlds like Titan and '55 Cancri', it is not clear for a long time why the Illyri are here. They are removing humans to be slave-workers and soldiers, but they have other races to draw on for those if they really need them. Conveniently for the teenage romance, the Illyri are particularly attracted to Earth because we are so like them – then to their despair, their teenagers show increasing wishes to 'go native'. Indeed their emotions are identical to ours, and the only physical difference appears to be that they have nictating eyelids. There have already been human-Illyri relationships resulting in pregnancies, and a successful one seems only a matter of time (p.35). Mentally, only the Illyri have psi powers in this novel, but one suspects that latent human ones are going to surface. The relationships between the two Illyri heroines and the two young Resistance recruits don't get far beyond the boy-meets-girl stage here, but it seems clear where they're going.
But the real reason for being here explains why it's the Diplomats, not the Military, who are pushing for extreme measures in response to Earth's resistance to occupation. The Diplomats have become infested with an alien brain parasite, disseminated by the evil sisterhood, and there is a covert medical programme to make us the new hosts. Seemingly it includes reanimating the dead, which may make the parallels with Buffy more apparent in later books. It is clear that there will be later books; and although I found this one worth re-reading, to get fully to grips with the issues cited above, I'm afraid that because of them the further journey is not one I'm inclined to make.
See also Ian's review of Conquest.
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