Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth’s The Crucible of Empire is yet another fantastic novel, following up their rousing success in The Course of Empire with — what else? — more action, suspense, and drama, not to mention a new species in the Lleix, and more information about Jao politics coming from, of all places, an impoverished kochan named the Krant.
The Crucible of Empire takes place two years after the previous novel, The Course of Empire (reviewed here), left off. Aille krinnu ava Terra (formerly Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak) is now firmly in command of Earth but rules with a light hand. Aille has succeeded in forging a new, stronger fighting force to wield against the nasty Ekhat (who are so alien that the term “species” may not even apply). This was essential, because the Ekhat aren’t exactly a “live and let live” sort of people — instead, their basic philosophy is to exterminate anyone who isn’t “of the Ekha,” but they also have a tendency to kill other Ekhat out of hand, too. The Ekhat have several factions, which just goes to prove that even violent, xenophobic racists don’t have to agree with each other, and the only good thing about them being around is that they forced Aille, and all the Jao, to “think outside the box;” due to the success of the human-Jao fighting force in driving off the Ekhat, Earth became not only easier to manage, but far more essential to the Jao in the bargain — a “win-win” overall.
Aille not only has his hybridized fighting force (the jinau troops, formerly all-human, now have some Jao intermixed), but is the founder of the Terra taif — a kochan-in-training that has two separate parts, one for the sea lion-like Jao, the other for humans. This is the first time the Jao have ever admitted any species aside from themselves into polite society; that the Terra taif is sponsored by the Bond of Ebezon, the strategists of the Jao, only helps strengthen the new Terra hybrid-taif’s position.
I mention all this because without understanding it, you can’t really understand what’s going on in The Crucible of Empire — a crucible, after all, is a severe, extreme test, one that pushes a race to realize everything they are. And it is a problem out of the past that is the Jao’s crucible — when they were still a subject species under the Ekhat, the Jao were forced to hunt another sentient species, the Lleix. The Jao are heartily ashamed of this, especially as it was one of the Lleix — a race of graceful, intelligent, artistic creatures who are bipedal like the Jao and humans, but are unlike either race physically — that gave the Jao the thought that maybe it was possible to throw off the Ekhat’s influence and win independence. That it took the Jao many years — hundreds, if not thousands — to do this is irrelevant; what they’ve remembered is that when they had the opportunity to forge an alliance with the Lleix, they instead killed the Lleix’s messenger, then killed all the rest of the Lleix they could at the behest of their Ekhat masters. The fact that they’d take back their actions now, if they could, is an essential plot point.
At the start of The Crucible of Empire, the Jao believe they failed in their first acid test; they failed their crucible, in short. Yet now, in a successful battle against the Ekhat, the impoverished Krants bring back recordings that prove a third, sentient race took part in killing the Ekhat — the readings are faint, but the Bond strongly believes that they belong to the Lleix; this means the crucible they failed might now be corrected, if only the Lleix will listen. But because they know that if the Lleix have records, it won’t matter that everything happened over a thousand years ago — the Lleix will fear the Jao just as much as they fear the Ekhat. And the Lleix won’t know the Jao have thrown the Ekhat off, nor that the Lleix messenger did a good thing in offering up his life to give the Jao that uplifting message of hope, nor even that the Jao want to help the Lleix stay alive to help fight the Ekhat.
This is where the humans from The Course of Empire come in — Caitlin Stockwell Kralik, now two years married and Aille’s top diplomat, along with Gabe Tully, who’s been promoted to major and a command of jinau troops on a new starship, the Lexington, that’s bigger than anything the Jao alone had ever before conceived — these two, along with Wrot krinnu ava Terra (a Terran elder, and an acknowledged agent of the Bond of Ebezon), are dispatched to check out the readings and find out whatever they can. The humans aren’t initially told anything about the Lleix, but Caitlin, who is no fool, figures it out long before they ever get to the battle-site.
The Krant figure into this because they lost two ships (they only had three) to the Ekhat when they killed that Ekhat ship, which has given Ronz, the Preceptor (head strategist) of the Bond of Ebezon, an idea. Ronz is tired of Jao politics; way too many good people are thrown to the side because they come from remote, rustic kochan like the Krants, and Ronz hates waste. So the Krants — these Jao who are so rustic their gestural language postures are curt and to the point rather than studied, classical and mannered like dance moves — are sent off to bear witness to whatever happens. This is partly because the Terra taif wishes to form new associations of its own, and partly so the Krants will be able to bear witness to their kochan that the new Terra taif will not treat them unfairly. (Terra taif’s promise to share any spoils of war with the Ekhat is not minor to the Krants, either. ) Besides, there’s really no way to show the Krants anything about how humans and Jao interact except by letting them come along for the ride — a version of wrem-fa where experiences must be learned deep down before they can be processed and understood. That Gabe Tully is given responsibility for the Krants only underscores the desperation of the Krants, because Tully used to be a member of the Terran Resistance and understands how desperate sapients behave.
During the voyage into deep space, Tully realizes that some Jao, including the hot-tempered Krant engineer Kaln, have talent in what the Jao call ollnat — imagination, in short. Kaln is an innovator, and has been stifled on Jao ships to date because the Jao like the tried and true; even when she’d proven her innovations worked better than what the ship already had, she’d had to change her innovations back into standard, which galled and frustrated her. Giving her encouragement is easy; understanding that not all Jao are created equal due to the way the Jao politically operate is only a side benefit.
Of course, there is another fight in space against the Ekhat; after the Lexington kills some and drives off the rest of the Ekhat ships, they make contact with the Lleix. But a misunderstanding makes the Lleix believe the humans now control the Jao, rather than it being an equal association; because the Jao want to help the Lleix and make up for their previous error, the humans uncomfortably play along with the charade.
While doing so, they find out the Lleix have some severe social problems of their own; whole segments of their society have become disenfranchised in the dochaya, which is where all those who don’t have an elian (a working co-operative where those who’ve been accepted into it live; it’s similar to a fraternity or sorority that works as well as plays together) are forced to reside. The dochaya, in short, is a slum, and the humans can’t stand it; that the Lleix are ripe for change is underscored by Jihan, a young Lleix who must form a new elian on the spur of the moment called Jaolore. The humans realize that the Lleix learn languages easily, and are natural translators; they also see quickly that the Lleix society, despite being forcibly moribund for years, is ripe for change.
The Jao feel greatly responsible for what’s befallen the Lleix; the Lleix once had fourteen planets and a great civilization, but now only have 100,000 sapients left on their one remaining planet. The Lleix once had many more elian; many houses that had been gracefully erected now stand vacant, yet no one in the dochaya claimed them because they’re so downtrodden they never thought to do so.
But now, the humans have come, along with the Jao; what will happen next? Will the humans and Jao drive off the Ekhat? (Hint: if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be much of a book.) What new associations will be forged by the Lleix, the humans and the Jao? And how many of the nasty Ekhat can be killed in one book?
There’s so much to appreciate in The Crucible of Empire. This is a rich, detailed, and varied read, with political shading from the Lleix, from the Jao via the resource-poor Krants, and from the humans who are still getting used to being allied with the Jao rather than opposed to them. All of this once again shows the strengths of Flint and Wentworth as novelists to a high degree; they are stronger together than they are alone. (And they’re pretty formidable alone.)
In summation: if you enjoy a read that makes you think as well as cheer the rousing space-battle action, you will love The Crucible of Empire.
Reviewed by Barb.