While Strange Horizons celebrated its first birthday at the beginning of September, the reviews department gets to celebrate a more modest landmark this week: we've been around long enough to review both a book and its sequel! In September of 2000, I reviewed Of Honor and Treason, by C. J. Merle, published by Speculation Press. I ended that review by saying that I looked forward to the next book. The next book in the series, Of Duty and Death, is now in print, and I am pleased to say that it more than fulfills the promise of its predecessor, leaving me looking forward once again to the next book! If you have not read Of Honor and Treason, you might want to take a look at that review before reading this one, but either will give you a sense of what the series offers.
The two books share the same pair of central characters: Eivaunee Dorlan, human commander of an Imperial flagship, the Comveckt, and heir to the richest estates in the interstellar Klimar Empire; and Zsar't'lac, a leader of the Hsassan, the warrior race of the Norda peoples, a group of humanoid races who also have an interstellar civilization, known as the Norda Homelands. Humans and Norda coexist uneasily. In Of Honor and Treason, Zsar't'lac exiles himself from the Norda Homelands and comes to human space, where he is met by Eivaunee's ship. After a brief visit to the corrupt imperial court, Zsar't'lac decides to serve under Eivaunee.
Of Duty and Death begins three years after the end of Of Honor and Treason. Zsar't'lac, now well established as Eivaunee Dorlan's second-in-command, must help his captain apprehend a brutal serial killer on the planet NeoCorda, a largely aquatic planet whose main industry is sex-based tourism. There is more at stake than he and Eivaunee realize, however, for the killer is a Hsassan. He has been sent to the human Klimar Empire to assassinate Zsar't'lac: the murders are simply the bait to draw Zsar't'lac within the assassin's reach.
Like Of Honor and Treason, which uses a conventional space opera framework to tell an unconventional story driven by its characters, Of Duty and Death uses a conventional murder-mystery framework to continue its character-driven story. Its main attraction is its development of the characters of Eivaunee and Zsar't'lac and the careful but warm friendship that has grown between them. The book deepens the potentially tragic bonds that trapped Eivaunee in Of Honor and Treason: he must execute the vicious will of the emperor he hates or be outlawed as a rebel and destroyed, enabling the Emperor, who hates Eivaunee even more than Eivaunee hates him, to seize Eivaunee's family lands. Zsar't'lac, exiled from his own Norda people because of his opposition to the plans of the ruling Yseret, bides his time, waiting for revolution at home, plotting how to prevent war between the Norda and humanity. He will need Eivaunee's help, but now he must keep Eivaunee alive and sane for his plans for the future to succeed. It turns out, though, that his own life is in more immediate danger.
Of Duty and Death has many of the same strengths as Of Honor and Treason, but overall its story is not as compelling. It suffers a bit from the "middle-volume" syndrome that often afflicts the second book in a series. It doesn't have the freshness of a first volume that introduces readers to the characters and the created world, and it doesn't have the narrative tension of a third volume that brings all the strands of the plot to resolution. That said, Of Duty and Death's other strengths more than compensate for its unexciting plot, and its subtle foreshadowing promises more dynamic action in the next volume.
One important source of foreshadowing is the development of two new characters, Sui-lan and N'torba, the captain and chief scientist, respectively, on a research vessel from the rather mysterious United Councils, a loose, democratic federation of human planets. Eivaunee and Zsar't'lac meet the pair in the process of their investigation and gradually become involved with them. Sui-lan and Eivaunee slowly develop an edgy friendship in which sparks of passion may be flaring, while N'torba and Zsar't'lac quickly become close friends and seem on their way to becoming lovers. Neither relationship is easily defined or static; careful development of relationships like these is one of Merle's great strengths as a writer.
The interest created by the development of the two female characters is not only personal, however. They introduce us to the United Councils, and they hint that it will play a role in the larger political plot of the series. The United Councils, like the Klimar Empire, was formed in the aftermath of the civil war that freed human colonial planets from Earth's control (and destroyed Earth in the process). Militarily, the United Councils is much less formidable than the Empire, but aside from that, the reader as yet knows little about the Councils. Sui-lan is a Councils spy as well as the captain of a research vessel, so the groundwork appears to have been laid for politically and emotionally complex machinations in the next novel.
The emotional complexity of relationships in Of Duty and Death is enhanced by the subtle parallels and contrasts that Merle arranges among them. Zsar't'lac's interest in N'torba develops alongside Eivaunee's interest in Sui-Lan. Zsar't'lac's deepening understanding of humanity develops alongside his assassin's much cruder response to human beings. When one chapter ends with Zsar't'lac envying the human ability to dream (he wishes to dream of his lover Sing'm'li to ease his loneliness), the next chapter begins with Eivaunee awakening from a nightmare. Readers of the first book may note in moments like this how the burdens of the two protagonists have been reversed. Eivaunee is now bearing the heavy burden of leadership that Zsar't'lac carried in the first book; Zsar't'lac now endures the loneliness that was Eivaunee's lot before Zsar't'lac joined his crew. Merle's writing is much more assured than in her first book; it repays careful reading. This is a book to enjoy in a leisurely fashion, as the characters enjoy the pleasures they manage to find in the midst of their difficulties. The decisive moments of this novel arise as much during the interplay of conversation over dinner or during pillow-talk mixed with foreplay as they do during moments of action or official interrogation. Who these characters are becoming to one another is what most matters in this book. What they do matters rather less; hence the occasional slowness of the plot. The foreshadowing promises more action in the near future. When these characters do act, their actions will matter greatly to the readers who have grown to care for them as complexly as they care for each other.
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