Friday, February 6, 2009
Review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S.M. Stirling
Today's review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S.M. Stirling, copyright 2008, published by Tor Books.
In an alternate version of the Solar System, Venus and Mars are not the lifeless planets we know today. Instead they are very much as science fiction writers (and some scientists) in the early days of the twentieth century pictured them -- inhabitable and chock full of life forms, both native and transplanted from Earth.
The situation on Venus is dealt with in The Sky People, in which an intrepid American explores the wild, rugged Venusian jungles, meets the natives and falls in love with the girl of his dreams.
Things are a little different in the Mars of In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. Instead of being a lush, almost primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, Mars is a dry desert planet, slowly dying from the loss of a limited supply of water. A civilization exists, founded by humanoids brought to Mars from Earth long before homo sapiens sapiens developed. These evolutionary cousins of ours have a civilzation that is many millenia older than ours, with language, culture, and technology simliar to and yet different from that on Earth.
Jeremy Wainman is an American sent to Mars by the U.S. government, in the context of the Terrestrial East/West Cold War (which is still ongoing in the year of the nove, 2000). He's an anthropologist/archeologist specializing in Mars and he's waited all his life for the chance to go there. Because space flight is so expensive, his is a one-way ticket, but he doesn't mind. His main goal is to find the long lost city of Rema-Dza, a kind of Martian version of Atlantis and El Dorado combined. For reasons he doesn't understand, his quest has been approved by the Cold Warriors of Earth, but he's willing to work with them to get what he wants. An expedition is outfitted with a Martian landship crewed by natives and rigged with sails to cross the vast deserts on Mars. With a native guide/bodyguard and a minder sent by U.S. military intelligence, Wainman sets out on his search. Complications arise when he inadvertently runs afoul of Martian political intrigue and things climax when he ends up involved in the Imperial succession of the rump city-state that remains from the once mighty, planet wide empire of the Crimson Dynasty.
Excellent read. One of those books you don't really want to put down until you're finished, even though you really ought to, because you have to go do stuff, like sleep and things..... The setting invokes a sense of nostalgia for the science fiction / planetary romance of 60, 70 or 80 years ago, but does it without seeming dated. The idea of setting it as an alternate history is good, and this definitely plays to some of Stirlings strengths as a writer. I've greatly enjoyed some of his other alternate history books, including the Island in the Sea of Time series, and most especially, The Peshwar Lancers. If you liked those books, and you don't absolutely hate Burroughs, then you'll probably like In the Courts of the Crimson Kings too.
The book is full of adventure, action (not always the same thing....), political intrigue, and good world building, all things that are high on my list of what makes an enjoyable good. The characters can seem a little bland at times, but the characterization is not outright bad, so it wasn't a turn off for me. The book is full of references there for devoted SF fans, including the name of the main character, Wainman, a play on Carter, from Burroughs' Mars books; the presence of a real Martian Princess along the way; and a ship named the Brackett, among others.
Buy it, read it, and maybe he'll write some more! There's certainly room for more books in this universe, and mysteries that were raised in both this book and The Sky People that remain unresolved.
What other people have to say about In The Courts of the Crimsion Kings:
Paul Di Filippo at (the sadly departed) Sci Fi Weekly.
Carlos Aranaga at SciFi Dimensions.
Jerry Wright at Bewildering Stories.
Brian Brown at The Dragon Page.