For my first review here at our brand, spanking-new review site, I thought I’d pick one of my favorites that I’d somehow inexplicably failed to review as of yet. This book is THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth, and is one of the best books of any genre written in the past ten years. It’s not every day that one book can talk about the clash of cultures/civilizations, be a bang-up military science fiction/action adventure thriller due to savvy plot-twists, and give truly insightful viewpoints from the alien perspective — yet THE COURSE OF EMPIRE does exactly this.
The plot is as follows: the Jao, aliens that look vaguely sea-lionish, have come to Earth in our not-too-distant future and have conquered us. But as the Jao have never had trouble before in conquering anyone, they don’t know how to handle the humans (i.e., us) — and worse yet, there’s a truly nasty villain out there that doesn’t care about the Jao, the humans, or anything save themselves — they’re the Ekhat, who are so alien that their struggle to pacify the galaxy barely makes sense to the Jao, who’ve been aware of them for decades, if not centuries. The humans don’t know anything about the Ekhat, mostly because the Jao viceroy on Earth, Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo, is a brutal thug who doesn’t see any usefulness to the human species — and that’s a huge problem for the Jao, who endeavor mightily to “be of use.” Oppuk’s belief that the humans have nothing of value to offer against the Ekhat is only one of the problems THE COURSE OF EMPIRE lays out to be solved.
Fortunately, the Bond of Ebezon, a strategic circle of learned and mostly elderly Jao, has grasped this problem, and has sent a young but extremely brilliant Jao named Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak, from a kochan (read: clan) that is known for its gifts for “association” — in other words, they are very good at getting things done, remembering who does what to whom and why, and in seeing how everything “flows” together. (This has to do with the overall Jao timesense; they do not sense time in the same fashion as humans, to put it mildly. For example, being “late” for something doesn’t really matter to the Jao if it’s something arbitrarily scheduled; it only matters if somehow someone has missed the “flow” of things.) Because the scions of Pluthrak are so very good at all these things, that’s the main reason Aille has been sent to Earth in order to work around Oppuk and try to forge some sort of relationship with the captive humans before it’s too late.
Aille learns, grows and changes; along the way, he meets up with an important human, Caitlin Stockwell — she’s the daughter of the President of the United States (the former Vice President, who succeeded to office on the death of the former President due to the Jao attacks), and thus is the daughter of the human de facto head of government.
Oppuk, unfortunately for Caitlin, has plans for Caitlin — plans she’d rather not play a part in, thanks. So when Aille takes Caitlin into his service, she gains both a measure of security and an equal measure of doom. Because Oppuk, though brutal and thuggish, is no fool, and he knows Aille is there to undermine his authority (at minimum), which Oppuk will not have. And sooner or later, these two heavyweights will collide . . . .
This novel is over six hundred pages long, but the plot is huge — how should conquerors behave if they truly want the assistance of the conquered? Can humans achieve a measure of dignity even being forced to submit as a captive species? Will Aille succeed, and what will be the repercussions if he does? And while all the political infighting, most especially among the Jao, is well-done, nothing beats the space battles toward the end with the combined forces of human and Jao against the nasty Ekhat that prove the rightness of Aille’s conduct beyond a shadow of a doubt.
K.D. Wentworth is known for how well she draws alien species; she did a bang-up job with this novel. Eric Flint is known for how well he shows political struggles, factionalism, and the way humanity doesn’t seem to change much regardless of time and space, and he, too, did an exceptionally fine job here. Both of these novelists wrote an exemplary novel of conquest, politics, war, upheaval, and finally, an unusual sort of peace that you really need to read in order to understand.
The reason I view THE COURSE OF EMPIRE as one of the best novels of the past ten years, any genre, is because it looks at the human condition from a unique angle — not a skewed angle, as so many aliens-meet-Earthlings SF novels tend to do even when done well. By showing how the humans view the Jao as well as how the Jao view the humans — including all the permutations of veterans on both sides, long retired, and how they view the formerly opposing side — this is a novel that’s insightful in so many different ways it’s nearly incalculable.
When a novel adds up to more than the sum of its parts, you know you’re reading an astonishing book. But when it sheds light on our current situation, politically, by sidestepping it — and showing what would be far worse than what we have (at least one thing that’s far worse, those incomprehensible Ekhat) — then showing how the two species, human and Jao, can not just mutually coexist but actually form a new friendship (the truest form of “association,” obviously) despite the missteps of Oppuk and his ilk — well.
All I can say to sum up is that this is one novel that definitely makes itself “of use” in all senses. Because THE COURSE OF EMPIRE is truly outstanding — a tour de force.
Read this book! (You’ll be glad you did.)
Reviewed by Barb