lunes, 1 de junio de 2015

A Prospect of War, by Ian Sales

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Prepare for War, by Justin R. Durban (Spotify).

A few years ago I had a conversation with some of my friends that sprouted from a question posed by Miquel Codony: "Is space opera to SF as epic fantasy is to fantasy?". I remember that, at that moment, I argued that it was not exactly the case although I don't recall what my arguments were exactly. Probably, if I had to answer that same question now, after reading A Prospect of War, I would be quite not so sure what to say. 

Ian Sales's debut novel is, indeed, clearly space opera, but with a distinct epic fantasy flavor. In fact, one of the first things that stand out from A Prospect of War is that the level of technology and gadgets is fairly low, at least when compared to other recent space opera novels. For instance, Dark Intelligence, by Neal Asher, immediately comes to my mind as an example on the other end of the spectrum.  

It is true that in A Prospect of War you will find faster than light travel, cloning and other advanced technologies, but they are the exception more than the rule. Battles are fought more with swords and spears than with guns and lasers, and even the spaceships have a strong resemblance to submarines and other (sea) ships. We also have a feudal social organization with proles, yeomen and nobles, princesses and emperors. The relationships between them, what they are and aren't allowed to do, is an important theme throughout all the book, as shown, for instance, in the two following extracts:
The paradigm which governed relations between nobility, yeomanry and the proletariat was the bedrock of Imperial society. Plessant's role as captain of Divine Providence had forced her to play the part of prole. But she was a yeoman, and it pained her to think her crew might have forgotten that. (...)   
Growing up on Ramsara, his family had taken Ormuz to chapel once a week. During one service, while the reverend murmured his way through the lessons to be learned in the life of one of the Avatars, Ormuz has experienced his own small epiphany. The Chianist Church was interested only in encouraging proletarian communities to be happy with their lot and pay unto their liege his or her due. The war between good and evil, order and chaos, Chian and Konran, was... no more than the parchment upon which a restrictive social contract had been written.
Oh, and speaking of elements that more usual in fantasy than in science fiction, there is also a special power that some of the characters possess and seem to be of genetic origin, but has a clear mystic undertone. If all this (the sword fights, the princesses and emperors, the mystical powers) sounds to you quite similar to a certain, very famous saga of sci-fi movies, we are of the same mind. In fact, Sales clearly acknowledges this inspiration in a clever line of dialogue (which I won't reproduce here for it might be spoilerish) at the end of chapter 57.

Another important, and even more interesting, source of inspiration in A Prospect of War is Zoroastrianism. In general, religion and myth are very important in the novel (especially because there are many facts in the Empire's history that have been forgotten or unknown): the book opens with a quote from The Book of the Sun (the holy book of the main religion in the universe of the novel) and some ideas such as the Avatars and their role in history and society are key to understanding the background that Sales has carefully constructed. But the influence of Zoroastrianism becomes fully apparent in the names chosen for some of the characters, most notably Ormuz and Ariman and their growing and unavoidable conflict.

This sense of impeding war (explicitly acknowledged in the title of the novel) is, probably, one of the strongest appeals of A Prospect of War. In the first half of the book, there are many hints and mysteries that slowly begin to unravel. Sales very aptly manages to create an atmosphere of tension and to reveal vital pieces of information at the right moments, and that's what, above all, makes the novel work so well. Almost without the reader's noticing it, the plot becomes more convoluted in each chapter until an ending that promises many, many good things for the next installment.

The characters (and their relationships) are, in general, very interesting, but I have to mention also that one of my main issues with the book comes precisely from one of the main protagonists. The evolution of Ormuz is, certainly, central to the plot and quite appealing on its own, but felt too abrupt for me (oddly enough, some of the other characters seem to think exactly like me) and, for that reason, a bit difficult to believe, especially because it happened so quickly. Another issue, again related to the suspension of disbelief, has to do with the low-level technology used in the fights (as mentioned above). Why literally nobody ever brings the proverbial gun to the sword fights, despite obviously having the means to do so (they do use cannons several times, for instance), is something that kept me wondering during almost all the battle scenes and that threw me out of the book in many a occasion.  

Despite these problems (and the second one could have been a big deal for me under other circumstances), I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Prospect of War and, what is even more important, I am really looking forward to reading the next volume to see what happens next. Thus, I quite highly recommend the novel, but beware that this is not space opera in the vein of Hamilton, Reynolds or Asher, but something much less gadgety and more old-fashioned (in a good way).

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

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