Behind the Throne

by K.B. Wagers

Cover image

Series: Indranan War #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: August 2016
ISBN: 0-316-30859-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 416

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Hail is a gunrunner, an outlaw and criminal, someone who knows how to survive violence and navigate by personal loyalty. That world knows her as Cressen Stone. What her colleagues don't know is that she's also an Imperial Princess. Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol left that world twenty years earlier in secret pursuit of her father's killer and had no intention of returning. But her sisters are dead, her mother's health is failing, and two Imperial Trackers have been sent to bring her back to her rightful position as heir.

I'm going to warn up-front that the first half of this novel was rough to the point of being unreadable. Wagers tries much too hard to establish Hail as a reluctant heroine torn between her dislike of royal protocols and her grief and anger at the death of her sisters. The result is excessively melodramatic and, to be frank, badly written. There are a lot of passages like this:

His words slammed into me, burning like the ten thousand volts of a Solarian Conglomerate police Taser.

(no, there's no significance to the Solarian Conglomerate here), or, just three paragraphs later:

The air rushed out of my lungs. Added grief for a niece I'd never known. One more log on the pyre set to burn my freedom to ashes. The hope I'd had of getting out of this mess was lost in that instant, and I couldn't do anything but stare at Emmory in abject shock.

Given how much air rushes out of Hail's lungs and how often she's struck down with guilt or grief, it's hard to believe she doesn't have brain damage.

Worse, Hail spends a great deal of the first third of the book whining, which given that the book is written in first person gets old very quickly. Every emotion is overwritten and overstressed as Hail rails against obvious narrative inescapability. It's blatantly telegraphed from the first few pages that Hail is going to drop into the imperial palace like a profane invasion force and shake everything up, but the reader has to endure far too long of Hail being dramatically self-pitying about the plot. I almost gave up on this book in irritation (and probably should have).

And then it sort of grew on me, because the other thing Wagers is doing (also not subtly) is a story trope for which I have a particular weakness: The fish out of water who nonetheless turns out to be the person everyone needs because she's systematically and deliberately kind and thoughtful while not taking any shit. Hail left Pashati young and inexperienced, with a strained relationship with her mother and a habit of letting her temper interfere with her ability to negotiate palace politics. She still has the temper, but age, experience, and confidence mean that she's decisive and confident in a way she never was before. The second half of this book is about Hail building her power base and winning loyalty by being loyal and decent. It's still not great writing, but there's something there I enjoyed reading.

Wagers's setting is intriguing, although it makes me a bit nervous. The Indranan Empire was settled by colonists of primarily Indian background. The court trappings, mythology, and gods referenced in Behind the Throne are Hindu-derived, and I suspect (although didn't confirm) that the funeral arrangements are as well. Formal wear (and casual wear) for women is a sari. There's a direct reference to the goddess Lakshimi (not Lakshmi, which Wikipedia seems to indicate is the correct spelling, although transliteration is always an adventure).

I was happy to see this, since there are more than enough SF novels out there that seem to assume only western countries go into space. But I'm never sure whether the author did enough research or has enough personal knowledge to pull off the references correctly, and I personally wouldn't know the difference.

The Indranan Empire is also matriarchal, and here Wagers goes for an inversion of sexism that puts men in roughly the position women were in the 1970s. They can, in theory, do most jobs, but there are many things they're expected not to do, there are some explicit gender lines in power structures, and the role of men in society is a point of political conflict. It's skillfully injected as social background, with a believable pattern of societal prejudice that doesn't necessarily apply to specific men in specific situations. I liked that Wagers did this without giving the Empire itself any feminine-coded characteristics. All admirals are women because the characters believe women are obviously better military leaders, not because of some claptrap about nurturing or caring or some other female-coded reason from our society.

That said, this gender role inversion didn't feel that significant to the story. The obvious "sexism is bad, see what it would be like if men were subject to it" message ran parallel to the main plot and never felt that insightful to me. I'm therefore not sure it was successful or worth the injection of sexism into the reading experience, although it certainly is different from the normal fare of space empires.

I can't recommend Behind the Throne because a lot of it just isn't very good. But I still kind of want to because I sincerely enjoyed the last third of the book, despite some lingering melodrama. Watching Hail succeed by being a decent, trustworthy, loyal, and intelligent person is satisfying, once she finally stops whining. The destination is probably not worth the journey, but now that I've finished the first book, I'm tempted to grab the second.

Followed by After the Crown.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-20

Last modified and spun 2020-12-21