Ascendant Sun by Catherine Asaro
This review will contain spoilers for previous books.
I keep working through Catherine Asaro’s SKOLIAN EMPIRE series. I keep expecting to love the next book, but here I am on book five and it’s still not working for me.
Ascendant Sun is a sequel to The Radiant Seas and a direct sequel to The Last Hawk which, frankly, I didn’t like. The Last Hawk was about Kelric, a prince of the Skolian Empire, who crash-landed and was held prisoner for 18 years on a planet with a matriarchal society. I didn’t believe in the society and I didn’t believe in Kelric’s reaction to it. Ascendant Sun, which picks up where The Last Hawk left off, is a little better because it advances the overall plot of the series, and it’s more believable, but mostly it just seems like more of that female wish-fulfillment fantasy (and maybe wish-fulfillment fantasy for men, too).
So, at the end of The Last Hawk, Kelric escaped from Coba and got back to Skolian space. At the beginning of Ascendant Sun he discovers that Skolian society has changed while he’s been away. Powers have shifted and Kelric is not sure about his place. Some of his family members appear to be dead and/or no longer in power. The psiberweb, which allows psions like Kelric to communicate with each other, is down. He also discovers that his body and biomech has been nearly destroyed and that puts him in mortal danger. He thinks it’s unwise to tell anyone who he is, so he needs to try to support himself and get the medical help he needs while staying under cover. Eventually he manages to get enslaved again — this time by the Aristos, those genetically modified humans who get off on torturing and raping psions. He hopes to escape, to find any remaining family members, and to see if he can repair the psiberweb and restore it to Skolian control before the Traders figure out how to hijack it.
As I said, the plot of Ascendant Sun does contribute to the overall series plot. A couple of characters are introduced that I think will be important later. We get to check in with Jaibriol III (son of Kelric’s sister Soz and Jaibriol II) and see how the Trader society is changing (or not) under his rule. We also learn about the Aristo’s views on genetic superiority and slavery. The story asks a couple of interesting science fiction questions such as, when humans have computerized parts and when computers have human-like capabilities, where do we draw the line between human and computer? I think this is something we may actually have to deal with someday.
However, most of Ascendant Sun, like the previous book, feels like fantasy wish-fulfillment. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this book could fit into the category of erotica. Kelric sleeps with just about every woman he meets and it’s usually because she seduces him and it’s beneficial for him to give in. The author’s preferred plotlines seem to be those detailing Kelric’s erotic experiences with the Aristo women who own him. Disturbingly (but not surprisingly after we saw how Kelric responded to this sort of treatment on Coba), Kelric finds himself again falling in love with the domineering women who own him. This feels icky to me, analogous to a woman falling for a man who rapes her. I’m not sure why it’s okay to portray a man falling for his “mistress” when most of us would agree that we don’t want to see girls being exploited and falling in love with men who rape them.
This series is a strange mix of hard science and erotica. Asaro does a great job with the hard science elements, especially when she’s talking about genetics or the relativity problems of space travel, but the erotic scenes are eye-rollingly corny. With this weird mix, it’s hard to know who the right audience for this series is.
The ending of Ascendant Sun is dramatic and touching. Most readers, including myself, will be eager to know what happens next. I admit to being interested in the big picture — how Asaro’s societies will make peace (if they do). I’m not interested, though, in watching Kelric fall in love with his rapists.
The cover art of Ascendant Sun is atrocious — some of the worst I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I was listening to an audio version that nobody could see. I’d be embarrassed to be seen holding this book. Anna Fields narrates Ascendant Sun. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not crazy about her, but she does an acceptable job.
That is indeed an odd mix.
I think this cover is crying out for a “Rename this Cover” column, Kat.
Marion, it is already in the queue! :)