The Martian General’s Daughter is a fine showcase for worldbuilding, clever plotting, and evocative characterizations. It is also a slightly frustrating work, skimping on some plot points that would otherwise make it completely satisfying.
The novel takes place in the twenty-third century, told in first person by Justa Black, the illegitimate daughter of General Peter Black, a stalwart "soldier’s soldier" and a commander of the Pan-Polarian Empire. The Empire is what is left of the United States, leading to some well-aimed barbs at our world. It begins in 2293, on Mars, when Justa (who serves as Peter’s aide-de-camp) and Peter are told of the death of the Empire’s regent. Anthony Golden, a rich patrician, informs Peter that he will be the new Emperor. Elderly, with poor eyesight, and terrible hearing, Peter is clearly not in his prime. Yet, he is still formidable:
"My father may never have been a great strategist when at the head of an entire army, but while in the ranks, while serving at the head of a company or in command of a division, he had no equal." (p. 21)
Peter reluctantly agrees to wage a campaign as the new emperor. At this stage, the novel jumps back in time fifteen years, using the events of 2293 as a frame for the entire novel. Peter and Justa are reluctant warriors, but a major theme of the novel is that they are also honor-bound to do their duty for the Empire.
There are many good things about the book. Justa is an engaging narrator, and Judson makes her relationship with her father believable. Peter’s devotion to Justa is absolute, but he does not express his feelings to others. "My father never knew how to explain that existence of mine to other men . . . I was his illegitimate daughter, one born to a mistress long since dead . . . within his heart he felt more guilt than he dared confess on account of the child living in his home. Father assigned failings to other men, not to himself" (p. 23). Justa spends time at the edge of Peter’s camp. She is cared for by her nurse, Helen, a believer in "anything anyone ever imagined could have power over us, including those things that move in the night and do not have a proper name" (p. 26).
The milieu through which these characters move is also interesting. A series of nano-engineered "metal plagues" run rampant, corroding all metal surfaces and leaving all developed technology to be derived from plastics, ceramics, and other non-metalloid materials. This allows Judson to draw organic parallels to the Pax Romana (rather than creating an interstellar version of the Roman Empire, he reduces the technology so that it is closer to the ancient civilization). And the novel subtly, but pointedly, takes aim at the superstitious nature of the new age. For instance, when a terrible "new type of smallpox" occurs in the Pan-Polarian capital, "the citizens of Garden City fancied they could protect themselves by burning incense at the front doors of their homes throughout the day and night, for there was an ancient folk belief revived among the people which proclaimed that incense purified bad air . . . [others] believed the old Christian God had sent the plague because the people were accepting the new religions from the southern world" (pp. 168-169).
The political environment is similarly inventive in the ways that it plays with historical precedent. As a pre-teen, Justa meets with the kindly and wise Emperor Mathias Anthony ("Mathias the Glistening"), who co-rules the Pan-Polarians with his son, Luke Spacious Anthony, a lazy wastrel with a sadistic bent. Mathias is a warmonger, but he fashions himself as a moral warmonger. "Our duty as citizens of Pan-Polaria demands we fight the Manchurian rebels . . . once we have beaten them and peace is again restored, we have a second duty, as men, to forgive them and to lead them to the true path of life." (p. 38) He forges a close (but not creepy-close) friendship with Justa, mentoring her in the ways of politics, history, and philosophy. Although Justa loves and respects Mathias, she is clear-eyed about the Emperor’s limitations, and it is this fierce independence that makes Justa an engaging heroine and narrator.
When Luke eventually ascends to the throne as sole Emperor, he calls himself "The Concerned One," but creates an empire of horrors where citizens are brutalized, hedonistic decadence reigns in the capital, and war grows ever more extensive . . . as does his depravity. Under the new regime, Peter distinguishes himself in the Turkish frontier, which becomes "the safest border province in the Empire" (p. 68). But he’s also too honest for this new administration, and he is soon summoned to the capital—ostensibly to be punished—where he is made to wait in an antechamber for hours. Justa explains, "my father died his first death as he sat there waiting for the end to come from the shadows at the edges of the white room. His years of self-discipline, his military acclaim, and the strength of his good right arm were of no use to him there" (p. 77). Peter soon suffers a heart attack, and although he is still a strong warrior, he grows increasingly dependent on his daughter. Later in the novel, Peter actually becomes a confidant of Luke Spacious Anthony, and is appointed governor of Anatolia, before being called back to the capital and witnessing the unpleasant excesses of "the Concerned One."
It is clear that Judson has studied the Pax Romana, particularly the time of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, who were also father-and-son co-emperors. Aurelius often took to the field to lead his armies and is often called the last of the "Five Good Emperors" and an important Stoic philosopher: his "Meditations" are still studied today by students of government and history. Commodus, like Luke Anthony, was a handsome man known for his excesses and depravities.
I also saw some parallels to our own world. Judson's future is based on our present, and it’s telling that no matter how repugnant Luke Anthony is, or how unjust his domestic and international policies, the people do not rise up against him. In fact, he is beloved by the common people since the Emperor metes out his increasingly insane form of justice on the patron class. Plus, most people are enjoying prosperity and have their basic needs met.
"These were fat times for most of those in the city when compared to the years of famine and disease. While the money lasted and the trade routes within Mexico remained open, the public dole was more generous than it had been only months before." (p. 233)
Luke is insane and truly repellent. He regularly holds spectacles where criminals condemned to die fight each other to the death, followed by blindfolded horses attacked by hungry lions and jaguars. The Concerned One murders those who conspire against him, and those he thinks are conspiring against him. He rapes young virgins every evening and orders the deaths of thousands of members of a religious sect. The excess wears thin, and it becomes frustrating as the novel wears on and so little attention is paid to other aspects. I wish 30-odd pages of the depravity of "the Concerned One" had been excised for more description of this colony’s origins. As it is, there are only two pages (pp. 241-242) that explain that Justa, Peter, and his household journey to Hawaii where "the metal plague had not yet reached," where they are launched via hydrogen gun into orbit. I wanted more Mars in the novel and more about the events of 2293.
Narrative "frustrations" aside, however, The Martian General’s Daughter is a well-researched and engaging novel, with a vibrant milieu, and definitely worth a look.
Mahesh Raj Mohan lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Sara. He is an experienced writer and editor, and he can be found on the web at http://twitter.com/maheshrmohan and http://www.maheshrajmohan.com.