Inaugurated in 1995 with Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire now approaches its twentieth anniversary, and its twentieth installment. The current volume, Undercity, is actually number nineteen, counting shorter standalone works in the series, as detailed on a fairly massive Wikipedia page devoted to the mythos. In this way, Asaro plants herself firmly into that grand SF tradition of future history franchises favored by luminaries like Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Anderson, Dickson, Niven, Cherryh, and Baxter. It really seems to me that any future mention of this stefnal lineage must include her name as a worthy exemplar.
I myself reviewed the first book way back in the October 1995 issue of Asimov’s, and since then have dipped in here and there, but can hardly call myself utterly conversant with every facet of her universe. I’ve enjoyed my forays into the Skolian Empire, and found that each time I can get up to speed pretty easily, given Asaro’s generous welcoming tactics. This time around, all barriers are down, as Asaro kicks off a new and independent series within the parameters of the larger enterprise.
Our heroine is one Major Bhaajan, a smart, ultra-capable and deadly woman, augmented with various implanted devices—including the feisty Evolving Intelligence named Max—and formerly of the Skolian military, but now a freelance private investigator on the pleasant, mild, civilized world of Parthonia. In a swift opening scene, Bhaaj, to employ her familiar cognomen, is invited offplanet by a mysterious rich client. Her destination happens to be the city and planet of her birth—the City of Cries on Raylicon—and her client turns out to be the secretive Matriarch of Majda, one of the nigh-omnipotent royalty of the galaxy. The Matriarch’s nephew, naïve and unschooled Prince Dayjarind, has fled his golden cage—the men of the Matriarchate lead a seraglio existence—and must be found, before he comes to harm in the rough-and-tumble precincts of the Undercity.
Bhaaj’s return to her ancestral stomping grounds brings confrontations with things and people she wishes both to avoid and to reacquaint herself with, such as her old lover, Jak, owner of the undercity gambling palace known as the Black Mark, producing torn loyalties. Her familiarity with the vast labyrinth of the undercity, where she spent her youth as a “dust rat,” is invaluable in tracking down the Prince, and she soon brings that case to a rousing conclusion—but with our tale only a third over. That’s deliberate, since Asaro intends to ramp up the action. Finding the Prince has disclosed an arms-smuggling ring, and now Bhaaj is tasked with bringing them down. But the remainder of the plot soon swerves again, or is complexified, into a battle between the forces of wealth and the status quo and the forces of the long stomped-upon underclass. Suffice it to say that after much ingenious haggling and no small amount of personal danger, Major Bhaajan averts a war and negotiates a new accommodation that benefits everyone.
Producing a hybrid mystery-SF novel, Asaro joins such contemporaries as Robert Sawyer, with his Red Planet Blues, and Jack McDevitt with his Alex Benedict series. But whereas Sawyer emulates the hardboiled school, and McDevitt’s hero reminds me a bit of Nero Wolfe, Asaro goes in for neither wise-cracking nor scholarly modes of detection. Bhaaj’s military career is paramount in having shaped her, and she approaches everything from a point of view of strategy and tactics. (Of course, we can’t omit her genuine emotional empathy. This shows up especially towards her former Undercity compatriots, but extends also to the royalty, most notably the abused Prince Dayj.) Once in a while, Bhaaj reminds me of Robert Downey’s Holmes in those fight scenes where he calculates everything out beforehand in a flash, then implements his vision. Of course, in this regard Bhaaj is aided by her augmentation.
And mention of the speculative tech allows me to say that Asaro is very good about updating the process of detection to reflect the new gadgets. Just as the existence of the cellphone shattered a thousand old tropes, so too such innovations as drone surveillance and GPS tracking means new considerations for the PI. And so Bhaaj has two little pocket drones who help her, and she can take herself off the grid in stealth mode.
Asaro’s inversion of gender roles is fun and illuminating, while never being heavy-handed. Likewise, her “one percent versus the ninety-nine percent” theme does not seem forced or polemical. Of course, the real tyrants are the Eubians, where one thousand rulers hold a whole interstellar empire in slavery—but they are offstage this time.
In the end, perhaps, what I enjoyed most about this installment was its Leigh Bracket/Planet Stories feel, a deliberate choice on Asaro’s part, I’m certain. The five-thousand-year-old Undercity and its environs shout Brackett from the git-go.
“In eons past the Vanished Sea had rolled its waves on the world Raylicon. Now only a desert remained where those great breakers had once crashed on the shore. The empty sea basin stretched out in a mottled red and blue expanse to the horizon. The City of Cries stood on the shore of that long-vanished ocean…the pitted ruins of ancient starships hulked on the shore of the Vanished Sea, their hulls dulled over the millennia…”
They don’t write ’em like that anymore! Except Asaro does, with no false nostalgia, but rather an up-to-the-minute savvy!