Seven Devils, Elizabeth May & Laura Lam (DAW 978-0756415808, $26.00, 464pp, hc) August 2020.
I wanted to like Seven Devils a lot more than, it turns out, I actually did. The epic space-opera team-up from Laura Lam (author of Goldilocks and Shattered Minds ) and Elizabeth May (The Falconer, The Vanishing Throne, The Fallen Kingdom), Seven Devils is the opening novel in a longer series that owes, at a glance, a large debt to the influence of Star Wars. A small band of heroes – Eris, Cloelia, Nyx, Rhea, and Ariadne – are the last hope of a resistance against an incredibly oppressive empire, Tholos, whose ruling classes worship a god of Death. It should have been catnip for me. Alas, for all that it does well, there are a whole lot of really small things that annoy the hell out of me.
Things that annoy me:
a. All of the main characters appear to be named after Greek or Roman mythological figures, in a world where it’s not clear whether Earth and, consequently, Greece and Rome, existed in the same fashion;
b. The heir to the empire was named Discordia and her brother Damocles – she faked her death and changed her name to Eris; that’s not really changing one’s name; that’s translating it;
c. The entire supply chain of the empire apparently depends on one or two planets that supply a large amount of food and one or two that supply a large amount of water. One shudders to think of the logistics involved in shipping: how many hulls to transport bulk foodstuffs and water, the very narrow margin for supply-chain screwups in the case of water, the peculiarity of settling places without it and the need for technologies of reclamation – yes, I’m easily distracted by questions of logistics, but really;
d. The fact that the empire engages in pretty heavy brainwashing – through implants, propaganda, and genetic alteration – of the vast majority of its inhabitants, and yet the resistance doesn’t seem to have a screening protocol for when their own come back from missions, to make sure that they haven’t been compromised;
e. The heir to the empire thought her best bet for changing the whole system to be less screwed up was with the tiny, underpowered resistance, rather than through assassinating her dad, taking over the AI in charge of brainwashing, and ramming through changes from the top of the power structure. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, and all that, but it doesn’t seem like a very sound choice from a tactical point of view;
f. The worldbuilding in general doesn’t think through its second-order consequences very thoroughly.
Things I enjoyed:
a. The sheer over-the-top space-empire-versus- scrappy-resistance space opera gumption of Seven Devils. How do you not like stories about five disparate people united in the cause of bringing down a murdery fascist excrescence of an empire? Especially when one of them used to be The Enemy;
b. Eris. Despite being very murdery – or perhaps because of it – Eris and her complicated relationship with her even more murdery family presents a very compelling picture. As does her very strained relationship with the one resistance member (Cloelia) who used to be her friend until Clo discovered Eris’s secret former life;
c. Action scenes. Lam & May have a knack for writing enjoyable, easy-to-follow, well-paced action;
d. Undercover attempts to run a con and pull off a heist surrounded by enemies;
e. People who don’t trust each other having to work together to survive;
f. Sibling relationships and rivalry. It’s all very murdery, but it’s entertaining.
The empire of Tholos is about to sign a peace agreement with their long-running enemies, the Evoli. This seems like a good thing, but it may in fact be a trick – or allow the ruthless Damocles, Eris’s last surviving and very sadistic brother, to otherwise consolidate his power. If the empire can eliminate the Evoli leadership, well… bad shit will go down. It’s up to Eris and her team of misfits – an engineer, a teenager raised by an AI, an elite soldier, and an escaped concubine with secrets of her own – to get in the way.
Seven Devils pairs the events of the present – desperate fights, dubious undercover operations, terrible secrets – with narrative strands from the past of each of the five main characters, building up a picture of who they are and what’s brought them here. It’s a nice balancing act, to maintain tension and pace and still flesh out a significant cast this size, and Lam & May manage it well.
Seven Devils is the opening volume of a longer story. Despite my annoyances, I’m looking forward to where Lam & May take that story next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the September 2020 issue of Locus.
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