by Catherine Asaro

Cover image

Series: Skolian Empire #10
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: December 2004
Printing: September 2005
ISBN: 0-7653-4837-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 403

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This is the tenth book in Asaro's Skolian Empire series, but similar to Skyfall, Asaro is fleshing out the series backstory rather than continuing the plot. (Or, less generously, is mining her backstory for novels.) This one is set back in Soz's youth, following Skyfall by a few decades and preceding the main plot line by a similar length of time. It's the first book of a duology telling the story of Soz's time in the military academy.

Sometimes prequels work. Sometimes they feel like needless elaboration on material that was more interesting as background. Skyfall mostly worked, I think because it elaborated on a culture that we hadn't seen a lot of in the main books. Schism, on the other hand, I found frustrating and rather long for the material it covered.

My primary problem was that Schism puts Eldrinson, Soz's father, in the spotlight as he makes a seemingly endless series of truly idiotic decisions while being a misogynist, a Luddite, and a bigot. Eldrinson has never been one of my favorite characters in this series, but at least in Skyfall he gets his world turned upside-down and Roca provides a nice balance. Here, he's abominable to his kids, wallows in self-pity, and meets all problems and obstacles by being stubbornly blind. There's a redemption story arc underneath, but I found the setup grating and the payoff not worth the pain of getting there.

Better, significantly, are Soz's experiences in military training, but here we're on well-trod ground. The aristocratic student hiding their family connections while outperforming everyone else in military training and being tested even harder by their family than by everyone else is practically a cliche and has been done elsewhere (notably and more uniquely in Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan novels). This is a perfectly acceptable version of that story, and I like Soz as a character, but other than a few interesting moments with Kurj, there's not a lot here that's memorable.

I think the part of the book that had the most potential was Shannon and his search for Blue Dale archers. It gets off to a rocky start due to Eldrinson and the disaster of misunderstanding and failure to communicate tied up with his ego trip, but it's the part of the book that breaks new ground within the universe. Shannon's approach to telepathy and to dealing with problems of shielding and emotions are noticeably different than everyone else's, and I was looking forward to seeing him explore that in more depth. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in Schism. We get bits and pieces, but nothing satisfying or in sufficient depth.

I wish Asaro had continued her main story arc and not gone back to tell these stories. We already knew the basic outlines of the background material, and we already saw different sides through reactions and discussions from later on. The background material was good background material, but as the foundation for a complete novel, I found it lacking. Worse, in the case of Eldrinson, I found it infuriating. Sometimes emotional train wrecks are best told as backstory; the reader doesn't always enjoy wanting to shake sense into a character.

This is not a bad novel. It's a bit clunky, a bit padded, and we get yet another rehash of how telepathy works in Asaro's universe, but it chugs along and delivers some fun characters and solid emotional payoffs. But thinking back on it, having finished it, I can't say I got much out of reading it. Mildly entertaining but thoroughly missable.

Followed by The Final Key.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-09-03

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