I have a great story to tell about this book before I can offer the review.
I was putting together a panel on Speculative Romance for a show I’m doing for the SFWA YouTube channel, called #SpecWomenChat, and SFWA President Cat Rambo suggested Catherine Asaro as our “headliner.” I had heard of her, but to my knowledge had never read anything of hers, though I recall being intrigued by many covers. We had never met prior to the panel, but we all had a great time and afterwards, especially since I had a lot of indie authors, I said, “If you ladies ever need a review, let me know.”
I was not expecting Catherine to take me up on it, but she did, and I received a lovely new trade paperback copy of The Bronze Skies in my mailbox, because for some reason Amazon insists on making it impossible to send ebooks to people in other countries. Really, I don’t understand their business practices.
So I caught this horrific cold. One silver lining about being sick (and there are so few!) is that when my sinuses are that plugged I can’t write, so I have an excuse to get caught up on my reading. I powered through this book in a few hours.
First, let me tell you that despite being both a sequel, and the second book in series, this one stands completely on its own and you don’t need to read anything else in the series to grasp what’s going on. As a newb to Asaro’s world, I am the perfect test case, and it passed with flying colours. There was a vague reference to the Trappers, who are the enemies of the Skolian Empire (and, I assume, probably the aliens that originally kidnapped the humans who form the Empire), and I don’t really understand what they are, but it’s not really relevant to the current plot of this book.
Second, I love this world and I want to read more! The Skolian Empire is a parallel evolution of humanity. Egyptian, Indian, and Mesoamerican peoples were kidnapped by aliens in about 4000 BC and brought to an alien world with imperfect terraforming. Then the aliens died (or were defeated) and these ancient people reverse engineered their technology, or created their own based on the tech available, and promptly formed dynasties and an interstellar empire, which later collapsed and had to be rediscovered, and the technology relearned.
During this time they encounter an Earth-based polity, who have now made it to the stars as well. I assume a lot of the early books are about that story. But this one is about an ex-military PI named Major Bhaajan, who has done the impossible and elevated herself out of segregated poverty that has plagued her people, the inhabitants of Undercity, for thousands of years.
Both the aristocratic and impoverished groups have involved cultures that carry elements of those original influences. Yet there’s also a certain cyberpunk element to this space opera, since there is a parallel universe that’s a bit like a cyberpunk cyberspace, which has real-world effects but requires tech (and psionic ability) to tap into.
Into this complex, layered world, at heart this is a simple, action-oriented sci-fi detective story. A soldier who is supposed to be conditioned not to kill anyone without military sanction does so, and Bhaajan has to figure out where they are and why they did it. And the answer is a lovely twist that I sort-of saw coming, but not in the form that it took!
This was a fast-paced novel that felt like a well-written urban fantasy (including romantic overtones, and relationships and people being a primary focus) that took place in a cyberpunk space opera. It’s a sci-fi noir detective novel. I absolutely love it, and Catherine has wisely won herself a brand-new fan. Like Fry said, “Shut up and take my money.”
I would like to add a personal additional kudo: Catherine Asaro says a lot about gender and sexism that I think is really worth reading. This world’s ancient cultures have been militant matriarchies. They’ve grown beyond that now, except among the aristocracy and a few backwards weirdos (somewhat like our own Western culture with the genders reversed). So it’s amazing how she handles the casual, low-grade sexism, which some might refer to as “microaggressions,” that are leveled constantly towards men. If a man and a woman are standing together, the woman is always assumed to be in charge. All the brilliant techs and scientists are assumed to be women; all the especially clever politicians and military strategists are assumed to be women. Women think nothing of checking out an attractive man and thinking somewhat lasciviously, “Yeah, I can see what she sees in him;” EVEN BHAAJAN, our protagonist, who is otherwise very liberal and constantly cautioning her peers and superiors not to assume things due to gender. Men, if you fancy yourself a feminist ally, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you read this book, and possibly the whole series, to get a real feel for what women experience in our culture every single day. I’ve never seen it captured better in a way that could make you think about it.
Thank you, Catherine, for seeing I got a copy of this. It was great! I’ll be back for more.