Originally posted 03/08/11 in my meta/review blog
I did a review for Crucible of Empire last year, and never got around to doing a review for the prequel until now. The Course of Empire borrows from two staples of science fiction of the military SF persuasion. One is the story of Occupied Earth, where a successful invasion by aliens results in drastic social changes and desperate rebellion. The other story is the one where humans get used by the aliens as soldiers in a war with yet another group of aliens. (With a possible third from the storyline that goes “once upon a time there was an alien race used by another alien race as slave-soldiers, but then the soldiers rebelled and Stuff Happened.”)
In this case, the Jao have conquered Earth because this is the only way they know how to interact with other species, who all had a much lower technology than the humans do. The reason why they conquered Earth is because they are trying to keep their extremely former masters, an alien race called the Ekhat from xenociding the universe. Earth turned out to be a very tough nut to crack and twenty years later, the Jao still don’t have much of a foothold on Earth and don’t understand humans, and humans in return really don’t understand the Jao or believe that their stories about the Ekhat are true.
We begin with a suspicious conversation between the members of an organization that serves as a sort of neutral order of warriors and agents called the Bond of Ebezon. They appear to have arranged for a young officer and noble from the Pluthrak kochan (clan) to become a Sub-Commandant for the jinau forces of earth (which is to say, the human soldiers). This could be a potentially bad or very good thing because Aille’s kochan and the Narvo kochan (who control Earth) do not get along so well. The Pluthrak are trying to force the Narvo kochan into “association,” but Narvo are not cooperating and consider the Pluthrak to be annoying rivals.
Our Heroes are a disparate group of people. One is Caitlin, the daughter of the president of America. Caitlin is a hostage and her father is a puppet, but technically, they’re collaborators. We have Ed Kralik, a jinau officer and Rafe Aguilera who would both like superiors who actually listened to them once in a while. We have Aille, a very young officer with a lot of big ideas and a desire to Figure Humans Out, we have Yaut, who can’t decide if Aille is being very, very stupid or very, very smart and we have Tully, a spy for the rebels who ends up in a very, very difficult position when he gets caught. (Tully gets caught for being Suspicious. They are not at first aware that he’s actually a rebel spy, they just notice the things he does Do Not Make Sense. Aille’s response to someone Not Making Sense is apparently, “Okay, I’m going to keep you nearby and try to find out why you’re so weird!” Poor, poor Tully–he gets knocked around a lot by Yaut until he finally decides to cooperate by working with instead of against.)
Our enemy is Oppuk, the Jao Governor of Earth. He is brutal, not very tightly wrapped, and he hates humans in a way that is pretty much pathological. He also isn’t too happy with Aille just because he exists. He is really, really unhappy when Aille begins trying to learn more about humans and tries to find ways to work with them (which is something that the humans Aille comes into contact with slowly begin to appreciate.)
After some initial successes in communication between Jao and human, things get (literally) heated when the Ekhat finally make an appearance; Oppuk decides to evacuate all of the Jao forces, but Aille and a number of others stay behind. Using human organization and ingenuity, they come up with a battleship design that becomes a deciding factor in the defeat of the Ekhat forces. (Jao and Ekhat faster than light travel involves using “framepoints” that are created within the sun’s photosphere, Jao and Ekhat do not use kinetic weapons and have no clue of how effective they can be. The new ship design involves integrating artillery into the weapon systems.)
This is a great adventure/science fiction story with a lot of underlying humor. The characters are all interesting and engaging (though Caitlin is at first something of a sad sack). Some of my favorite characters include Tully, Tamt, a Jao from a somewhat disreputable lineage who is recruited into Aille’s service by Yaut, Aille and Rafe. (Actually it’s pretty safe to say that I love all of the characters.)