I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, The High Ground – see my review here – which I read in response to Sci Fi Month and as we had the second book already, I tucked in.
Thracius Tracy Belmanor and the Infanta Mercedes de Arango have graduated from The High Ground and have become officers in the Orden de la Estrella. Tracy’s posting aboard a battleship leads him to further doubt the intentions of the Solar League, as he and his comrades are required to assimilate the settlers of a Hidden World. Meanwhile, Mercedes’ own posting and her difficult marriage to Beauregard Boho Cullen, made to assure her succession of the throne, divides her loyalties. In a society where most humans and all aliens are second-class citizens, the two young officers have difficult choices to make…
As in the first book, the storyline focuses on these two young people who became very close during the first book, even though it was clear their relationship would never be able to go any further. I had sort of assumed that during this book, love would somehow find a way – because that’s what happens in amongst the action and mayhem in most space opera. So I was more than a tad gobsmacked when events took a completely different turn.
I had become very attached to both characters in the first book, but found Tracy harder to like this time around. He is eaten up with anger and bitterness, making no attempt to compromise and foster friendships in amongst the other young officers. That said, even though there were times when I wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled, I admired his gritted courage and his determination to do the right thing. His tactical ability and leadership skills are not utilised sufficiently, but when he is called upon to act, he does so with flair.
However, my favourite character by a long country mile is Mercedes. Her life is allll about compromise – she marries the man who she likes rather than loves to secure her family’s grip on the imperial throne. She fills the role of Infanta, rather than continue her career as a fighter pilot, even though she is exceptionally good at it – and all without becoming embittered and angry, in stark contrast to Tracy’s attitude.
The action in the book highlights some of the trickier moral actions the underpin the social structure. When a human colony is discovered illegally operating outside the Imperial League, the consequences are shocking. Its economy is hi-jacked and resources given over to the League, the population brought under control – and all the children under ten years old are taken away to be adopted or fostered by loyal families on other worlds, which means the population are assimilated within a generation. This issue is explored within the story in a manner that had me wondering both about the justification and the long-term effects.
The entitled nobility, who advance by dint of their birth rather than their ability, have a casually dismissive attitude towards the rest of the human population, which is the attitude typifying the huge majority of humans towards all the alien species who are employed as servants or indentured labourers. I really enjoyed this interesting exploration of the society through the lens of two major protagonists, while finding the unexpected plot twists prevented me from putting this one down. I read it in two greedy gulps and surfaced wanting more, so immediately went looking for the third book, The Hidden World – something I hardly ever do.
Recommended for fans of grown-up space opera that takes the characters and story arc outside the confines of the usual genre conventions.