Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Phoenix in Flight, by Sherwood Smith & Dave Trowbridge

Old-school made-for-TV space opera varnished with a new coat of cheeseglitter.

The Phoenix in Flight

Book View Cafe, originally published 1993, revised/republished 2011, approximately 169,000 words.

Smith and Trowbridge describe the flavor of their five-book space opera Exordium as a cross between Star Wars and Dangerous Liaisons with a touch of the Three Stooges. With its fast-moving blend of humor and horror, of high-tech skiffy and the deep places of the human heart, The Phoenix in Flight launches the reader into a complex, multi-layered universe as Brandon nyr-Arkad, dissolute youngest son of the ruler of the Thousand Suns, abandons the life of Service planned for him and flees into the lawless Rift.

Only slowly does he discover that the world he rejected now lies in smoking ruins as the ritual vengeance of Jerrode Eusabian against Brandon’s father, twenty years in preparation, culminates in an explosion of interstellar violence. With both his brothers dead and his father the Panarch imprisoned, Brandon becomes the Panarchy’s last hope.

When a space opera starts out with a prologue narrated by a "Magister Davidiah Jones, Gnostor of Archetype and Ritual, The Roots of Human Process, Torigan Prime, A.A. 787," it had better be ready to deliver something pretty damn epic to justify that much pretentious squaffle.

This first book in the Exordium series tries really hard to deliver. How well it satisfies you will depend on just what sort of science fiction you like.

Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge originally conceived Exordium as a sci-fi TV series back in the 90s. That never happened, so they wrote a series of novels instead. Exordium is a five-book series that's long out of print but not hard to find in used bookstores (what, those still exist?) or Amazon. What I found interesting about it was that the authors are not merely digitizing the old paperbacks, but have actually made revisions to the original text and are taking advantage of epublishing now that rights have reverted to them.

(By the way, I'd like to give an unsolicited plug here for Book View Cafe. It's a very interesting venture by a SF&F authors' collective; they sell tons of ebooks by pro authors, including some very low-priced ones - The Phoenix in Flight is only $0.99 - and all DRM-free.)

The Phoenix in Flight

Anyway, I never read the series in paperback, so I can't tell you how much was actually changed for the new release. I can say that it still has a very 90s flavor, and the TV show influence is still evident. This is one of those books with lots and lots of sci-fi jargon. Characters use swear-words like "chatzing" and "stupid blit" and "Blunge!" Space pirates are called "Rifters." Spaceships enter "fivespace" to travel faster than light, and warriors don't use blasters, they use "firejacs."

This is Big Time Space Opera. Planets are besieged by fleets that have to spend days trying to wear down the planet's global force field generators. There are seven-kilometer-long battlecruisers. (Why the hell would anyone ever build a 7 km spaceship?) There are aliens named N!Kirr guarding ancient artifacts capable of destroying planets. The Thousand Suns occupies a region of space on the other side of the galaxy from Earth, from which mankind long ago emigrated and were unable to return to.

Brandon nyr-Arkad is the youngest son of the ruler of the Panarchy. He is about to undergo his "Enkainion," or formal assumption of adulthood and royal title. However, he is a very sad royal. All these nobles, they are so stuffy and pretentious and they don't care about, like, real things, man! Like, Brandon's had such a hard life sleeping with all these hot aristocratic chicks who are only into him because he's the Panarch's son. Also, the son of the evil enemy overlord who was kept as a hostage at his family's royal palace tried to rape him when they were teenagers.

Brandon and his best buddy went to the academy to learn how to be royal starship officers, but his friend was accused of cheating on a test and got kicked out. Brandon, being the Panarch's son, skated. So now he's decided he's going to go look up his old school buddy, and bail on his Enkainion and his fiancee and his older brothers who are harshing his mellow always wanting him to act like he should actually take an interest in royal affairs.

So, remember that evil overlord whose son tried to rape Brandon when they were kids? Said evil overlord is the Lord of Vengeance, Avatar of Dol'jhar. The Dol'jharians tried to take on the Panarchy when Brandon was a wee royal, and they got their butts kicked. Instead of occupying them properly and utterly destroying their military capability, the Panarchy simply put an embargo on them and made the Avatar of Dol'jhar send his son to the royal palace because they hoped they could teach him some civilization instead of doing things like trying to rape his host's son. The Dol'jharians are really big on rape and torture and generally acting like you'd expect an evil space empire with an apostrophe in its name to act. They're like ST:TOS Klingons; they don't really have a culture so much as a racial snarl.

So at the beginning of The Phoenix in Flight, the Avatar of Dol'jhar is about to execute his evil plan, which starts with acquiring an ancient alien artifact and recruiting a space fleet of Rifters, just as Brandon runs away from his homeworld. The Dol'jharians capture Arthelion, Brandon finds himself in the hands of a ragtag crew of Rifters, and wacky hijinks, space battles, and narrow escapes ensue.

Either you like this kind of thing or you don't. Assuming you do, how does it measure up as a space opera? The writing is fast-paced; there are many twists and turns, but I thought rather more turns than twists, which is to say, the story went all over the place in a deliberately wild ride, but it drew so heavily on tropes that there wasn't a single twist I didn't see coming. That said, it was fun and readable, but it's certainly not the stuff of which Hugos are made.

There are many, many points of view, but don't make the mistake of thinking it's one of those books that delves deeply into the lives of a large cast of interesting characters, because a lot of those POVs are of minor characters who die in the chapter where they are introduced. I mean, we get a glimpse inside the head of a Dol'jharian guard, I guess to make them a little more human and less the faceless black hats, except immediately after getting a glimpse into his head, psionic aliens blow his brains out his ears. There is the young woman at a high society ball who we learn is pregnant just before she and everyone else at the ball is cooked with hard radiation. If a minor character is suddenly introduced to describe a new scene, it's a good bet they've got the life expectancy of an Enterprise redshirt.

The characterization was reasonable for this type of book, especially given how many characters there were. Brandon is very much a noble noble from central casting: rich, handsome, morally upright, just enough of a playboy and prankster to make him theoretically interesting, and of course a born commander and warrior. The Rifters are all gruff and mercenary and always with the threats to kill people in creative bloody ways except secretly they've all got hearts of gold - well, the ones Brandon meets. All the other Rifters practice competitive torture-and-murder-your-way-to-the-top and keep doxies hanging around on their bridge 'cause being distracted by a bimbo during battle proves you're Boss, man! Some of the bad guys showed a few thin layers of personality, though it's mostly nastiness layered over unpleasantness layered over villainous laughter.

I'm making a lot of fun of this book. It was actually pretty fun, I just could not take it seriously, and I'm not sure I'm interested enough to read the rest of the series.

The main reason I am making so much fun of this book is that it grinds on two of my pet peeves:

1. Evil Overlords never read the Evil Overlord List.

Specifically, the part about killing underlings right and left when they make the slightest mistake. This does not create highly motivated success-oriented minions whose highest priority is not screwing up. It creates highly motivated risk-avoiding minions whose highest priority is not being the one who gets blamed.

2. Learn you some linguistics, sci-fi authors!

Tallis Y’Marmor


Seriously, how do you pronounce that shit?

Verdict: The Phoenix in Flight is the first book in a five-book series, so either you'll love it as the tasty sci-fi treat it is and dive into the next four books, or you'll roll your eyes because Farscape and Babylon 5 were good TV, but literary SF should have a bit more to offer. I will admit I enjoyed it more than the somewhat deeper (and more ponderous) works of Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton, but it is what it is: spaceships 'n blasters space opera.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction

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