Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers takes a familiar idea, the fish out of water, from a distant part of a galactic empire, and updates it for a 21st century mentality and enlightened point of view. In not all, but many works past, the protagonist would be male, it’d be a patriarchal empire ruled by a King, Emperor, what have you. Women would have at best secondary roles, with even the occasional strong female character having a relatively unexplored interior life, and certainly not a full-on point of view that gives us her real story (I’m looking at you, Princess Leia). A man’s world, where men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.
Some novels and novelists have tried to buck this sausage fest of space opera in the past. Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta series, for example. Some of Debra Doyle’s and James D. MacDonald’s Mageworld novels feature a strong female protagonist front and center. Even with these exceptions, Space Opera and space adventure have for decades been overwhelmingly a male-dominated and male-catered affair. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo cast long shadows indeed.
In the 21st century, we’ve gotten an increasing number of novels where that traditional frame is challenged and blown up in favor of worlds that are far more egalitarian. Authors like Rhonda Mason (Cloak of War) and Elizabeth Bonesteel (The Cold Between) have helped make those exceptions much more of a rule. Tanya Huff’s novels, with a Mil-SF/Space Opera bent, starting with Valor’s Choice have brought characters like Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr to life. Julie Czerneda’s Clan chronicles feature a raft of strong, enabled female characters with lives and agendas, from Sira on down. Authors like Melinda Snodgrass in novels like The High Ground have criticized and critiqued such patriarchal structures by careful use and subversion of them and their societies. Ann Leckie’s novels are practically a subgenre unto themselves.
Into this mix, enter debut author K.B. Wagers. In Behind the Throne the author dives into this new world feet first. Our protagonist is Hail Bristol. Gun runner, smuggler scum, dangerous with a gun…and as it so happens, a princess on the run from her mother the Empress and the rest of her family. She’s changed her look, her very body in order to disappear and escape a stifling life at court, a pawn or at best a bishop in her mother’s policies and schemes. She’s carved out a life for herself, trying to avoid Imperial Entanglements and live the life she wants.
That all changes when an attempt to kill her is combined with the news that two of her sisters have died in what is most certainly a concerted attack on the Empire. Now, by hook and crook, the gun runner and smuggler IS the Heir to the Empire, and very unwillingly brought back to her Mother’s court. And it is after all that when the real plot of the novel starts to get going. How can a Princess who fled her life readjust to life at Court, with her siblings dead, and threats to the Empire and the Imperial family from within and without?
There are a few strands of excellent material running through the novel, and the author juggles and manipulates them expertly. There’s worldbuilding, character development, and the action beats and page-turning action that all require a lot of juggling to make this come off. Hail’s readjustment to court life, being very much a fish out of water that she thought she had escaped, only to get pulled back in, is a strong thematic and character development line. How does the child of the throne, who ran away to escape that life, have to deal with being thrust into it again? Hail is an intriguing character within and without, with a streak of dark, almost gallows humor. She’s intensely interesting as a character and while reading it I imagined her dealing with the current President of the United States, and just not taking his crap. Because she most certainly wouldn’t.
The worldbuilding is top notch as well. We get to see what the Indranan Empire is like, and the worldbuilding never goes to the “As you know, Bob” sort of explanation. The first person point of view, with a fair chunk of internal thought running, helps marry what Hail knows about the Empire and its customs with what is happening so that the reader gets immersed into the alien culture without being overwhelmed. There are details gross and subtle, lovely touches and broad swathes of detail of just what life is like out here in a relatively far future.
Then, there is the action-packed, page-turning and pulse-pounding action as Hail deals with the fact that her siblings are dead, and her determination to get to the bottom of it. You may suspect that Hail’s life as a gun runner and smuggler make her uniquely suited to getting wrapped up in the action (even if, as now the Heir, she should be nowhere near that action) and you would be right. Even as much as the worldbuilding shines and delighted me, it’s the action and adventure beats where the author’s words positively sparkle. It’s not much of a spoiler to suggest that after her sisters have been killed and Hail returns to the Empire, she herself is also a target for assassins and miscreants. The author manages the breaths and pauses well, before launching yet another “something through the door” at Hail and company yet again. It makes the novel a page-turner that entertained me throughout.
Behind the Throne ends with an off-ramp and the closure of one plot thread and the opening of others. You can get a complete story out of the first novel, but it’s clear that this debut novel is just the beginning of Hail’s story. Book two, After the Crown, is already out, and book three, Beyond the Empire, comes in November 2017. Get on board a spaceship to excellent Space Opera and try Wagers’ debut novel.