Monday, February 25, 2019

"Behind the Throne" by K.B. Wagers

I came to Behind the Throne thinking it was a space opera, and the first chapter or two seemed to confirm thatinterplanetary arms smugglers, spaceships, warp drive, all that good stuff. It quickly changes gears, however, and the vast majority of the novel would be better characterized as "action-packed palace intrigue".

Originally fleeing the constraints of the royal family while hunting for her father's killer, Hail Bristol has spent decades as a gunrunner among violent criminals. All that changes when a series of assassinations and conspiracies threaten the Indranan Empire, and Hail is brought home as the unexpected heiress apparent.

This book was a major struggle for me, but after getting through the first half or so I found myself entertained by it. More than anything else, it feels like it needs another editing pass: cliché use is a little too heavy, chapter breaks feel arbitrary, and the metaphors are a little too frequent, a little too florid—comes across as trying too hard for dramatic effect, without quite finding its tone. Set in first person, these tendencies coupled with Hail's personalities can become a bit much:
Now that the adrenaline rush was fading, the indecision struck hard and fast, paralyzing me like the venom of a Viperidae. I was ridiculously unsuited for this. I wasn't fooling anyone. Any suggestion I had about this would probably be met with the same derision I'd faced at the military briefing. 
Words dried up in my mouth. I lost a piece of my nerve, and watched it skitter over the floor, where it curled into a corner and died. 
Bugger me, I couldn't do this.
That kind of thing. Rough.

Considered from afar, Hail's struggles with impostor syndrome sound like interesting reading, but they play out as an extremely repetitive "does something, doubts self, 'bugger me', does something". The two sides of Hail's characterhyper-competent criminal and reluctant, fragile-seeming princessnever quite merged for me. There's a grating dysjunction between her violent pastshe's presented as having military-operative-level fighting skills and a long list of murders for a criminal organizationand the consummately ethical, sensitive person she seems to be now that she's back on her home planet.

A closer edit probably would have caught the deal-breaker, disbelief-unsuspender moment that really kicked me out of the world for a minute: twenty pages after Hail has dramatically kicked one of her bodyguards off her team and found a possible connection between them and her sister's gruesome death, the same bodyguard just...shows up on her team again, with Hail interacting normally with them. Rough.

Setting aside my gripes with some elements of the writing, this does have things to commend it. It's definitely fast-moving; I'd generally file this under "slightly guilty pulpy pleasures", maybe alongside things like Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books. More than anything else, Behind the Throne reminded me of Cherryh's Foreigner books, only with neurotic worrier Bren crossed with like...The Punisher? For some reason? Impostor syndrome coupled with a reservoir of competency, quasi-flirtatious bodyguards, intrigues galore. Then the punches and bullets start flying!

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Behind the Throne went on my reading list, on my radar at all, because of this brilliant Venn diagram (thank you, twitterverse). The Goblin Emperor, Traitor Baru Cormorant, Ninefox Gambit, and Ancillary Justice are some seriously noteworthy booksthese thematic overlaps are no jokeand so I really felt beholden to check off the fifth circle.

I wish the themes here had more to dig into. The Indranan world is matriarchal, but it seems like a straight flip, rather than exploring how a matriarchy might have different tendencies than a patriarchy. At a surface reading, at least, there doesn't seem to be any differences in terms of hierarchical power-obsession, bellicosity, or anything else I can seeit's just that men are second-class in terms of rights. Wagers taking the trouble to give this a non-European cultural setting (the Indranans are Hindus) is a nice touch, and something that I could see giving depth to the international conflict that seems to be shaping up.

Big pet peeve of mine that Behind the Throne set off, which is how uncritical it is of royalty. Overt, absolutist, hereditary monarchy, IN THE FUTURE, just doesn't make sense to meit's by definition unjust and atavistic, and it throws a major wrench into my ability to root for the characters. Yes, there are clear villains to hate, but in my book there are no "good kings/queens" in ostensibly realistic fiction, again I say: IN THE FUTURE. The Goblin Emperor, while also dealing with an unexpected/reluctant heir thrust suddenly into power, focuses a fair bit on the struggle to transition to a more just government; that doesn't seem to be something Hail is contemplating at all in Behind the Throne. As a character, she's personally reluctant to take power, but there seems to be no doubt in the book that power should be invested in a central authoritarian ruler"without a strong ruler, threats internal and external will destroy us" is a sentiment that gives me the creeps.

Oh, also there's magic healer elf-aliens? What?

Enjoyable insofar as I could get past the writing, a little bit of a mess, a popcorny character-and-action-driven book.

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