With Guardians of Paradise, Jaine Fenn is three novels into her Hidden Empire series. It is a solid start to a writing career—not the spectacle that publicists hope for nor, in my opinion, the failure which some considered her earlier novels to be. Principles of Angels presented an unusual world, where assassination is the formal mechanism of justice. It also introduced Taro, a pseudo-Dickensian street kid who is caught up in a Sidhe attempt to kill one of their own kind, a renegade known as Nual. The book avoids any clear description of the Sidhe, relying more on our familiarity with that fey name. The following Consorts of Heaven explains more about their former dominance over many human worlds, their defeat, their apparent extinction and their continuing, hidden existence, though its plot and characters are independent of the first novel.
Guardians of Paradise links up characters from the previous two novels and propels them to strike back at the Sidhe. How exactly they might do that is, at first, unknown to Nual and Taro. Nual has spent years in hiding and Taro is on the run from the only world he has known. Following the only clue they have quickly leads them to Jarek, who escaped Sidhe imprisonment in Consorts of Heaven with a valuable secret and a cache of encrypted information. Within a couple of dozen pages, Fenn covers the back story and sets up the mission—a briskness sure to be appreciated both by those new to her writing and readers who need a brief reminder of the "key takeaways" from her previous novels. The recap also allows a dash of recasting of previous events, pulling the focus onto events that didn't seem so important at the time. My recollection of the closing pages of Principles of Angels had more to do with explosions and narrow escapes than the nature of the City Manager, but his being a male Sidhe provides an explanation for several elements in this book.
The vital information Jarek has taken from his sojourn on the planet Serenein is that the Sidhe use the brains of rare Sidhe/human hybrid youths to create the transit-kernel at the core of every starship. This recalls the Conjoiner use of minds to run spaceships in Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series. As in Reynolds, the existence of a sentient mind in the workings of starships is unknown to owners and operators. However, Reynolds has only shared this information with his readers in one story (“Weather” in Galactic North), whilst Fenn makes it a major part of her plot. Additionally, the Conjoiners chosen go willingly, whilst the Sidhe transit-kernels are genetic sports, lied to and never understanding their fates.
Fenn's worldbuilding is best close to the core of her plot. The concept of the transit-kernels drives the novel well and is well-realized. For example, there is validity in the idea that the hybrids are rare and that a single facility might take a year to process each. There is even a whole paragraph on the approximate number of "shiftships" in human-space and that “[e]ach transit-kernel lasted between one and two thousand years before it became unstable” (p. 99). Further from the plot, however, the worldbuilding frays. There doesn't appear to be any reason for the Sidhe to continue the creation of transit-kernels, which they don't need and would only benefit humanity. Nor, with the hybrids so rare, is there any sense of what the Sidhe do with the transit-kernels, how new shiftships are built. These concerns, however, aren't immediately important to the story of Guardians of Paradise, and there is enough in the novel to salt it with a sense that there is more to Fenn’s setting than meets the eye—a broad background of hundreds of possible planets.
This broad background, along with the open-ended nature of the series; the possibility of aliens; the opening up of a further layer of malevolence beyond the Sidhe, all add up to a fabulous setting for a sprawling series of old-fashioned adventure novels. There is a similarity here to the oeuvre of Neal Asher, who also designed a vast playground of future history for his, now multiple, series of novels. Fenn differs in the nature of her protagonists, though, and in the games she wishes to play. She is more interested in people than machines. This makes her initial task of developing characters more important, but Asher has been caught by the need to forever escalate the technology, the level of threat. Fenn can build out, one person at a time, fighting a secret war where each life lost or won matters.
Fenn also seems rather more interested in planetary romance than in space opera. Even so, each planet feels like a single setting. Stormy planet Kathryn, where this book opens, feels like it is all one North Wales coast while Kama Nui, where Taro and Nual eventually set down, is a South Seas planet with Pacific Islander culture and rules. There's a bit of hand waving to allow this set-up:
Kama Nui is mainly a water-world. . .What land creatures are here now are all imports, many of them from Old Earth. . .The people the Sidhe took from Old Earth to settle Kama Nui were native to marine archipelagos there. . .they were used to the idea of retaining their lives through change. Most now live a traditional island lifestyle—at least that's what the guidebooks claim. (p. 89)
And then we're off. Palms, tropical flowers, colorful clothing, beach bars and tapu, rules against use of lethal force in combat and fair treatment of opponents.
These last allow espionage, daring raids, and lots of peril for our protagonists without any immediate danger of death. This balancing of force stops the sophomore efforts of Nual and Taro resulting in their immediate extermination. Taro is a naïve teen, torn from the life he knew but intelligent enough to recognize how little he knows.
One of the first things Taro had learnt when he left Vellern was that he had no chance of faking it out in the real world. If he didn't know something—and there was shitloads he didn't know—he'd save himself a lot of grief if he just asked. (p. 33)
This makes him a great viewpoint character, an excellent sidekick, as he can ask the audience's questions any time we need it of him. By contrast, Nual knows the ways of the world(s), but doesn't really know herself. She has spent much of her life repressing her Sidhe character through fear of what she might become and doesn't know her strengths or her limits, despite being an experienced killer. She is afraid of her own glamor, making a direct equation between sex and death—one which is reinforced by her own first experience of sex. As Nual’s self-reliance grows, she also comes to understand how much power she has. She struggles not to become a Bitch Queen, seemingly able to overcome those elements of her nature through the power of love. How much of Taro's love is real and how much an effect of Sidhe glamor is central to their increasingly complex relationship, and incompletely resolved in the course of this book. Beside this emotional rollercoaster, Jarek seems to be offstage for much of the book, perhaps because he experiences comparatively little character growth.
It is probably best to think of Fenn’s novels so far as journeyman works. Whilst I have enjoyed them more than other reviewers on this site, I am also pleased by the signs of progress in her writing. Her skill with characters is growing and they have accrued depth over the course of her novels. The integration of technicolor endings into the story has also significantly improved, from feeling tacked-on in her first novel to the gradual ramping up of threats in her latest. Guardians of Paradise is good light entertainment, which continues to build a platform on which Jaine Fenn can grow her empire and her audience.