Book Review: The Lesser Devil

The Lesser Devil (2020) – by Christopher Ruocchio

Genre: Science FictionSpace Opera

Series: Sun Eater (1.5)

205 Pages

$3.99 (e-book), $20.99 (audio)

Amazon (e-book/audio)Kobo (audio)

Minor spoilers ahead

Setting

It is the far future, many thousands of years after the present day. Mankind has colonized a sizable chunk of the Milky Way, with the largest polity being the Sollan Empire, consisting of hundreds of millions of settled planets. Faster than light travel is not possible (interstellar travelers utilize cryonic chambers for the decades-long trips), so while the empire is ultimately ruled by a single emperor, the individual rulers (all appointed by the emperor) of the various planets have de facto control over their demesnes. The aristocracy, called palatines, are genetically enhanced, and can live for many centuries. The state religion of the empire, called the Holy Terran Chantry, is also its judicial arm, with a main point of emphasis curbing forbidden types of technology, especially anything related to artificial intelligence.

One of those planets is Delos. It began as a strategic commercial hub, only to gain further importance when vast uranium deposits were discovered on the planet and throughout the system. It is ruled by Duchess Elmira Kephalos, and her son-in-law Lord Alistair Marlowe of Meidua rules a small (but extremely wealthy, as it is home to said uranium deposits) prefecture on the planet. Alistair is the father of Hadrian, the main protagonist of the series, as well as Crispin and later (after Hadrian leaves) Sabine.

Characters

(from the beginning chapters….there are other major characters introduced later on)

With Hadrian’s departure, Crispin now is the heir apparent to Meidua. Even though it has been many decades since his brother’s disappearance, Crispin is still struggling to fill Hadrian’s shoes, not to mention still haunted by how he acted the night before his brother fled.

Sabine, who was conceived after Hadrian’s departure (children of palatines are essentially grown in vats) is now an adult, and is getting ready to depart with her brother on a trip to see their dying grandmother, ruler of Delos.

Kyra, who in Empire of Silence was a young woman, is now nearing retirement age (she is fated as a plebian to a normal lifespan) but still serves the Marlowe family as a trusted shuttle pilot.

Story/Review

Before he leaves to see his grandmother, Crispin’s father hands him a highmatter sword, a rare and deadly weapon, anticipating palace intrigue. After all, depriving Lord Marlowe of his heirs could mean his aunt Amalia, who is in line to inherit Delos, could also inherit the lucrative prefecture.

When their shuttle is shot down over the mountain wilderness, killing most of the guards assigned to protect them, Crispin is forced into a leadership role as the survivors of the crash flee what he believes is an assassination attempt directed by his aunt.

In Empire of Silence, Crispin is seen through Hadrian’s eyes, and the picture wasn’t exactly sympathetic. In The Lesser Devil, we see a different Crispin, who still has some of the flaws noted by his brother, but a side of him that Hadrian wasn’t able to perceive. This passage, from chapter 1, gives a different view of their relationship:

Crispin stood anxiously in the doorway, eyes taking in the two packed trunks stacked at the end of the bed, remembering - as he always did when it came to leave Devil's Rest and visit their mother's family - that last fateful trip with his older brother. He had gone to visit Hadrian that last night at Haspida. He had sneered, mocked Hadrian's friend - the old scholiast tutor Gibson. He wanted something, anything from his brother besides his aloof coolness. Any reaction. A kind word, a smile. He'd settled for anger instead, had been glad of any emotion from distant Hadrian, such that a piece of him leaped for joy when the older boy screamed and threw himself at Crispin. 

Crispin would never make it as a diplomat; an unfiltered outburst nearly costs him precious allies at a critical point if not for cooler heads around him patching things up. Even in his 50s he’s still a haughty, spoiled palatine that still has some growing up to do, if that makes any sense. But he also has a steadfast sense of honor and noblesse oblige which propels him to action, and thankfully he’s much better at that than cultivating relationships.

As always, Ruocchio’s world-building continues to astonish me. One of the things that drew me to this series and has kept me reading it is that although it takes place thousands of years in the future, chock full of weird creatures and situations, it balances the new with much that is familiar from past and present, much that is still recognizably of our times. That still applies here, especially in the interesting way an ancient religion is introduced as having survived millennia of drastic social and political change; these “adorators” are placed under restrictions but yet tolerated by the Chantry on Delos.

The action sequences are excellent as well, with that highmatter sword getting plenty of use (along with sundry other weapons and vehicles).

The main series is written in the first person (in Hadrian’s POV), so I went into The Lesser Devil not knowing how the change of viewpoint would affect the flow of the story. I need not have worried, as the prose is still as fluid in third person as it was in first.

Book/Series Information

This is a side story in the Sun Eater series, which begins with Empire of Silence (review). The Lesser Devil takes place after the first section of Empire of Silence, so if you wanted to read the series in strict internal chronological order, you could read the first 21 chapters of Empire, switch over to The Lesser Devil, then return to Empire, starting at Chapter 22. Or you easily could just jump in here as an accessible entry point into the series if you’re still unsure about committing to one of the mainline novels.

(all prices as of 31 May 2020)

#TitleYearPubReview?HCPBEBKAU
1Empire of Silence2018DAWYes$40$6$9$36
1.5The Lesser Devil2020indyYesn/an/a$4$21
2Howling Dark2019DAWNo$20n/a$9$21
3Demon in White 2020 DAWNo$27n/a$15n/a

There are also many short stories that take place in this universe:

TitleYearIn AnthologyPubTPBPBEBK
“Not Made for Us”2018Star DestroyersBaen$16$8$7
“The Parliament of Owls”2018Space PioneersBaenn/a$8$7
“The Demons of Arae”2019Parallel Worldsindy$15n/a$5
“Kill the King”2019The Dogs of Godindy$22n/a$5
“Victim of Changes”2020OverruledBaen$16n/a$7

For More

Fantastic FictionInternet Speculative Fiction Database

Book Review: The Legacy of Heorot

The Legacy of Heorot (1987) – by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Heorot (1 of 4)

408 pages

Publisher store pageAmazonKobo

Setting the Scene

Consider the following assumptions…

  • In the near future, the National Geographic Society raised enough money to pay for a slower-than-light starship, sending several hundred of Earth’s brightest people to Avalon, an Earth-like planet in the Tau Ceti system.
  • Because of the long time it would take to get there, the settlers would be placed in state of deep freeze, a technology that wasn’t entirely worked out yet, with the result of killing a small percentage of the settlers and causing brain damage of varying severity to another significant portion.
  • Because of the expense and the distance, there would be only one ship headed to Tau Ceti, with no immediate re-supply, so whatever the settlers took with them would be the only supplies they’d have in their lifetimes.
  • Once there, parts of the starship would need to be used to construct a colony on the planet’s surface, so although the ship can still serve as a warehouse and temporary living quarters for a handful, it could not take them back to Earth or go anywhere else.

Given all this, what would happen to this colony if, one night, months after getting settled, one of their dogs go missing? And what if, soon after, some of their chickens are killed? And what if, the colonists discover that whatever is killing their livestock is more than capable of killing them?

Review

It’s apparent that the authors of this tale wanted to confine the people of the colony to the surface of the planet, and particularly the island they settled on. Otherwise the smart option would have been to either escape back up to orbit to buy themselves some time or even to leave the system altogether. However, the residents of Avalon have with them plenty of tools to combat this threat. They have helicopter-like vehicles called Skeeters, they have defensive and offensive weapons, and all the advanced technology they could cram on their starship.

Minor spoilers ahead….

Continue reading “Book Review: The Legacy of Heorot”

Book Review: Today I Am Carey

Today I Am Carey (2019) – by Martin L. Shoemaker

Genre: Science Fiction – Hard (with slice-of-life elements)

320 Pages

Publisher Store PageAmazonKobo

Over the winter, I’ve gotten back into reading for pleasure, and specifically into genres that I hadn’t delved into since I was a teenager. Empire of Silence (see review here) was the first sci-fi/fantasy novel I read in many years, and since then I’ve picked up many more in quick succession. I don’t plan to write a review of every book I read, as that seems at odds with the whole reading for pleasure goal, but reviewing books that I particularly enjoyed would seem to strike a decent balance. With that said, here is a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed…

Today I Am Carey is a story set in the near future. It concerns an android named Carey that is designed to assist terminally-ill patients who are suffering with dementia. It is able to comfort these patients because it contains two different neural networks that can work together: one that can empathize with the patient, and another that can emulate (as in physically become) friends and family, whether living or dead. In the first chapters of the story, Carey becomes whoever Mildred, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, asks for, whether it be her son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, or even her departed husband.

Normally a medical care android’s memory will be wiped after their patient dies, but Mildred’s family asks for Carey to stay on with them, a request that is granted because something is unique with it, and Carey’s designer wants to try to understand why. The story takes off from there.

If you’ve read any of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, particularly Bicentennial Man (and the Robin Williams movie based off of it), you may recognize a similar theme at the beginning of Today I Am Carey: a robot/android that seems to be becoming almost human and the ethical and legal implications of that. But Today I Am Carey takes the story in a different direction, and in my opinion takes Asimov’s ideas into an entirely new realm of storytelling.

In Asimov’s robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics prominently figure in just about every story. In the case of Bicentennial Man, the main issue is at what point a robot becomes physically human enough so that the Three Laws do not apply. In Today I Am Carey, there are some plot points that deal with Carey’s legal status, but the main thread of the story is more about its mental and emotional development towards becoming more human and how that affects the human characters in Carey’s life.

Although there are many ideas about artificial intelligence that Shoemaker explores throughout the book, Today I Am Carey also delves deeply into the human characters surrounding the protagonist. After all, what better narrator to use in a character-driven story than an android that has an empathy neural network? Carey, because of his unique construction, can infer things from its interactions that a human being would never be able to infer. I think that first-person narrative elevates the story from your standard exploration of ideas to something that every reader, not just those who enjoy science fiction, would enjoy and relate to.

Shoemaker’s prose is deceptively straight-forward. I still don’t know how he did it, but he was able to make a story narrated by an artificial intelligence in a matter-of-fact manner deliver powerful emotional impacts, even when you have an inkling that those impacts are coming. The ending ties the events of the story together in a way that was both perfectly appropriate and in a way I never saw coming.