Book Review: Behind the Throne, by K.B. Wagers
And now, we’re back to pulpy sci-fi books with spaceships on the cover!
Or, well, women with laser guns on the cover. Close enough.
Don’t let that well-designed cover fool you, however. K.B. Wagers’ Behind the Throne is as pulpy an adventure as anything by Baen— and I mean that in the best possible sense. In another world (or at least under another publisher), this book would have a big gaudy cover with a picture of the main character sitting on a giant space-throne.
Said main character is Hail Bristol, a runaway space princess turned gunrunner, who is forced to return home after her sisters (and the ‘proper’ heirs to the throne of the space-empire) are assassinated. And so, Hail is forced to navigate the deadly politics of the Indaaran empire while dodging assassination attempts and trying to find out just who murdered her sisters. It’s really a straightforward space opera adventure, albeit one that’s done very, very well.
The Indranan Empire which Bristol finds herself slated to rule is fleshed out without getting TOO expository. It’s a unique blend of African and South Asian influences, so you have characters wearing saris and dreadlocks at the same time. Oh, and the Indranans are fiercely matriarchal as well, so most of the major characters are women of color– which is all handled casually and offhandedly in a nice touch. Space progressivism!
Hail herself is a fun character who uses both the courtly training she had as a child and her “on the job” training from her time as a space criminal to her advantage. Yet at the same time, she’s not the typical square-jawed space hero one might expect from a different book. Hail is emotional– she cries, she screams, she rages –but then again, given all the stuff that happens to her, she kind of deserves to. But this never gets in the way of Hail Getting Shit Done, as she’s more than happy to grab one of her bodyguards’ guns and shoot some bad guys when she needs to.
This said, the book isn’t without its quirks. As I mentioned before, this is really just a pulpy space opera adventure with a neat setting … for better or worse. The biggest thing (and another similarity to, say, a Honor Harrington book) is that Behind the Throne never really thinks about the whole space-monarchy thing too hard. Like, there’s passing mention of a Prime Minister and a parliament, but the Indranan aristocracy seems to have most of the power locked down for themselves.
Likewise, there are points in the book where things almost get TOO pulpy– there’s mention of diseases literally called “ebolenza” and “space madness” all said with a straight face. And for whatever reason, Wagers is really fixated on Hail’s “gunrunner” background. Not a smuggler. Not a space pirate. Not even a general criminal– it’s a gunrunner, each and every time. Just seems oddly specific, I guess.
These are minor quibbles, however– as Behind the Throne moves along at a quick enough pace, and Hail is a fun enough narrator that I kept finding excuses to go back and read one more chapter (which would only lead into another cliffhanger) and so on and so on. All and all, Behind the Throne is a solid start to a new space opera series, and I look forward to seeing where the series goes.