Dr. Catherine Asaro’s award-winning SKOLIAN EMPIRE series has long been on my TBR list because of its unusual blend of space opera, romance, quantum physics, relativity, genetic engineering, biomechanics, and computer science — all written by a Harvard-educated female physicist. That sounds like something I’d devour.
The saga is about the Skolian Empire and their long-time enemies, the Eubian (Trader) Empire. They are distant spacefaring civilizations that must have been seeded by humans from Earth many millennia ago, though we don’t yet know how that happened. The Skolian Empire used to be run by a monarchy called The Ruby Dynasty that has the psionic powers of empathy and telepathy. At this point the monarchy is mainly a figurehead while politicians run the empire, but the descendants of the Ruby Dynasty are still needed because they are the only ones who can control the empire’s psiberweb (like a psionic internet).
The Eubian Empire (the Traders) are ruled by “humans” who were a genetic mistake. Sometime in the past, an ambitious geneticist accidentally created people who completely lack the trait of empathy. They are sadists who get off on capturing and torturing psions of the Skolian Empire. As you can imagine, this doesn’t encourage friendship. The two empires have been warring for generations. The SKOLIAN EMPIRE series details these struggles as they span both space and time. Earth, which discovered this war when it finally got out of its own galaxy, remains neutral.
In the first book, Primary Inversion (1995), which was Catherine Asaro’s first novel, we’re introduced to Sauscony, a high-ranking military official and an heir to the Ruby Throne. When Sauscony meets Jaibriol Qox, prince of the Trader Empire, the sparks fly. And so do the spaceships!
I should have loved Primary Inversion. It should have been easy for Asaro to win me over with this romantic hard-science space opera. I like the world with its advanced technology and its relationship to Earth. I like the physics, engineering, and computer science (though some of this gets a little teachy and dry, even for those of us who love that kind of stuff). I like that the empathy genes make Sauscony a great military leader because of her ability to mind-meld with her crew, yet cause her pain because she hates to kill people. I like that she realizes that her Empire isn’t always right, that she worries that her biomech enhancements make her less human, and that she chooses to get therapy for these problems (though her therapy sessions tend to be long and whiny!).
Primary Inversion entertained me, but I didn’t love it. There are a few reasons. First, and most importantly, is that the romance is one of those instant mind-meld types. Within 15 seconds of seeing each other, Sauscony and Jaibriol know they’re soulmates forever. And that’s not because they know the other is a wonderful person who’s smart, funny, kind, has a great personality, and shares their interests. It’s because they are the only two people in the universe who can mind-meld with each other but who aren’t also closely related. So, while normally in a romance novel (I think… I don’t actually read many of them) you’d hope to see the potential couple getting to know each other, discovering that they like the same things and have some of the same ideas and values, we don’t get any of that here. I suppose it’s nice that they’re both smokin’ hot to look at, but basically they fall in love because they’re the only people in the universe who have just the right genetics. How romantic.
That’s my biggest issue with Primary Inversion, but there are a few other little things that would be forgivable if I’d liked the romance better. One is that there are little details about the plot that don’t quite feel right. Such as when we see everything that Sauscony does for long stretches of time, yet she takes no time to do normal things like eat, use a bathroom, or take a shower. I certainly have no need or desire to watch a character in the bathroom, but when she gets no break at all, you have to wonder how bodily maintenance is being accomplished. In one part of the book, Sauscony leaves work in the evening and decides to walk the 25 km home. On the way she gets drunk in a bar, passes out next to an outdoor memorial, awakens the next morning, goes to see a psychiatrist, hangs out at a harbor to meditate, finally arrives at home (it’s now been about 24 hours since leaving work and she’s still in her uniform), invites a guy she’s interested in up to her room, sits him on the couch, and then seduces him (he’s half her age). We see pretty much every move she makes and there’s no food or grooming or bathroom break. Wouldn’t she want a shower? In another scene, she’s doing something very private and very treasonous (while naked) behind her bedroom door in the Imperial palace while she knows that her half-brother, the king, is looking for her. So, why doesn’t she lock the door? These seem like minor complaints, but they’re just a couple of examples of the several little things that kept reminding me that none of it was real.
I listened to the audio version of Primary Inversion which was published in 2004 by Blackstone Audio. It’s 11 hours long and narrated by Anna Fields. I think I’m a minority, but I’m not crazy about her slightly Transatlantic accent. It’s especially noticeable with the low-register voice she uses for male characters, particularly Jaibriol. This makes the love scenes feel theatrical and phony. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t really like it, either.
Primary Inversion has a direct sequel called The Radiant Seas, which is actually Asaro’s third published SKOLIAN EMPIRE novel. The second published novel, Catch the Lightning, takes place at a different time and can be read as a stand-alone. So, if you’re interested in what happens to Sauscony after the events of Primary Inversion, go directly to The Radiant Seas.