Her Imperial Highness Mercedes Adalina Saturinia Inez de Arango, the Infanta, the eldest daughter of the Emperor of the Solar League, has a problem. She’s a woman. Her father, the Emperor, has managed, like English King Henry VIII centuries ago, to wind up with no male children to name as heir. The conventions and expectations of his society make naming a female heir a dicey proposition, especially because the Heir is expected to attend and graduate The High Ground, the “star fleet academy” of the Empire. The High Ground, however, has never had female cadets before, and so the attendance of the Infanta is a change too far for many.
Thracius Ransom Belamor, to his chagrin called Tracy by everyone, has a different problem. In the aristocratic, near feudal world of the Solar League, being from the middle class and unconnected to the noble Fortune Five Hundred families means that his scholarship to the High Ground is a poor billet indeed. In social circles far beyond his normal station, even aptitude and hard work may be far short of what Tracy needs to survive, much less succeed, at the Naval academy. The High Ground is the first in the Imperials series by Melinda Snodgrass, and tells the story of Tracy and Mercedes’ attendance at the titular High Ground.
The future Empire of the Solar League is a latter day space empire, put through the lens of a modern sensibility and critique of same. It’s extremely, even regressively conservative socially, much more than our own society. Women’s rights have been rolled back severely since our modern society, and the fight for Mercedes to be the mistress of her own destiny in such a patriarchal world as the Solar League has special resonance in an age of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. Rights and social liberties do not always progress in the same direction, and the author shows us what a Solar Empire might look like if the world turned back the clock. The reassertion of nobility, neofeudalism and monarchy, too, is even addressed in the book, giving hints as to how society took such a turn, and why. Like, say, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Empire of Man, the Empire of the Solar League is a classic patriarchal space Empire, but the author is interested in using it for her own ends, and in a modern context.
The two central characters themselves, though, are the heart and soul of the writing and, even more than the meticulous and well thought-out worldbuilding, are what make the novel succeed. While the stock types (princess thrust into power and the “little tailor”) are classic archetypes, Mercedes and Tracy both embody their archetypes and transcend them. The novel positively hums and sings when the two characters wind up working together at points, and even there, the author avoids easy shortcuts on the characters by having their friendship and relationship develop in interesting and non-predictable ways. It’s an organic growth out of their personalities and social positions and is a real highlight of the book.
As far as the plot goes, there is a plot, beyond Mercedes’ and Tracy’s efforts to survive and succeed in the naval academy, but to speak too highly of it would spoil it. Suffice it to say that both Tracy and Mercedes discover that there is much more to worry about at The High Ground than just trying to survive its rigors. Plots, plans and perhaps even treason are afoot. The novel does an excellent job in balancing the different and dovetailing concerns of its two protagonists against that backdrop.
Combining a relatively traditional space opera universe with a knowing critique of its social forms, along with strong characterization, the High Ground is a solid start and introduction to the series, and especially, its two protagonists. I look forward to continuing to read the successor volumes, as we see how the events in this novel, their time in the High Ground, prepares and forges them for their futures.