The Last Hawk by Catherine Asaro
The Last Hawk is the fourth of Catherine Asaro’s SKOLIAN EMPIRE saga, if we’re going in publication order, but it’s the first book about Kelric Valdoria, one of Sauscony Valdoria’s brothers. You don’t have to read the previous three books first (Primary Inversion, Catch the Lightning, The Radiant Seas), but you need to read The Last Hawk before you read Ascendant Sun, its successor.
Kelric, a Jaggernaut with psi powers, crash-lands on the planet Coba and wakes up in one of their medical facilities. Coba, which used to belong to the Ruby Empire, has been forgotten and has managed to stay off the current Skolian Empire’s radar. The planet is a matriarchy with essentially no military and relatively low levels of technology and scientific and medical knowledge. Eschewing military conflict, the women who govern Coba instead play a dice game called Quis which they strategically use to gain and trade information and to advance in their political arena.
When the female governors of the city-states of Coba see Kelric, they won’t let him leave the planet. One reason is that they don’t want to call attention to their planet — they like being isolated. They know that if he returns home, they’ll soon be occupied by the Skolians and probably dragged into their war with the Eubians. Another reason is that like the rest of the ruling class, Kelric was bred to be extremely good looking. So they keep Kelric as essentially a valuable prisoner for 18 years during which he is imprisoned and also passed around as a mate for several of the Coba governors. All the while, he learns the game of Quis and becomes a master player, which makes him even more valuable to the governors.
The Last Hawk was my least favorite SKOLIAN EMPIRE book so far. (I have read four.) First of all, I didn’t really like any of the characters. I’m sure I was supposed to like Kelric, but for much of the time he was passive and resigned to what he was going through, and I didn’t like that about him. I think I would like him better in another context (for example, the next book Ascendant Sun, which I haven’t read yet). The few other male characters are also resigned to their lot in life, which basically sucks — they’re treated as the property of ambitious women. As far as the women go, I liked none of them. They’re all scheming and manipulative and are the female equivalent of lecherous old men.
This leads me to the second reason I didn’t like The Last Hawk: I just didn’t believe in Coba. I’m a feminist through and through, but I’m also a psychologist. Let’s be real here. There’s a reason why we don’t know of any truly matriarchal societies outside of fiction. It’s because men are, due to their biology, physically bigger and stronger than women. They are also usually more aggressive because of those little testosterone-secreting sacs they’re so proud of. These are real biological differences, not simply due to socialization. Scientists today acknowledge these sex differences and the way testosterone affects our brains and behaviors. Unless we undergo some serious evolution, or at least start giving female fetuses testosterone injections, it’s always going to be this way. Fortunately, most Western societies have developed enough that, by passing laws, women are attaining equal status with men and are now in positions of power, which is to everybody’s benefit. But I seriously doubt, ladies, that we’ll ever be able to convince them that we need to be in charge and they need to be our slaves. Not gonna happen. So, all the time I was reading The Last Hawk, I’m wondering why the men don’t just revolt. Especially Kelric, a man with the highest military training possible, who is also heir to the Skolian Empire. It made no sense to me.
(As an aside: It bugged me a little that this society run by women was behind the times in math and science. I am not sure what to think of that. Catherine Asaro has a doctorate in physics from Harvard, so I’m sure it wasn’t a suggestion that women can’t do math and science. And, we do actually see a couple of them doing STEM work in this book, but still, they’re way behind…)
Even if I had been able to believe in Coba, unfortunately I thought the story was boring. Kelric gets passed around from woman to woman. They sexually harass him until he gives in and falls in love with them. (Ick.) He gets tied up. He does a lot of brooding. He spends a lot of time playing the Quis game. I like the idea of the game, but the rules and the strategy were only vaguely presented. How does playing the game give you political insight into your enemies? Because we’re told what it does, but not how it works, I had trouble believing in this aspect of the story, also.
I have not loved any of the SKOLIAN EMPIRE books so far, but I keep feeling like I should. Like there are elements of each book that I really admire and if they’d all come together in one book, it’d be a terrific read. So, I press on. I am still listening to the audiobook versions. Anna Fields narrates this one and I liked her a lot better here than in the previous novels, probably because The Last Hawk doesn’t contain any of the characters whose voices I didn’t like in the earlier books.
Ascendant Sun is the next SKOLIAN EMPIRE novel. It’s a direct sequel to both The Last Hawk and The Radiant Seas. I’m looking forward to it.
It sounds like it’s supposed to be just a straightforward role-reversal, which shows a lack of imagination to me. I can imagine a genuine matriarchal society in SF or fantasy if women have some survival trait that most men don’t have (eg, Joanna Russ’s Whileaway); or, more plausibly, an “informal” matriarchy where women control some aspect of society (for example, as in the US, the consumer economy). Or of course, a conscious, intentional society where the political power resides with women through law/whatever. Just saying, “Women are in power, and look, they’re as sexist as men!” doesn’t impress me, unless they are unabashedly satirical.
And Parcheesi as a tool of strategy doesn’t wow me either.
I almost used the words “role-reversal” in the review, Marion. That’s exactly what it is despite the hints that women took over (and were allowed to by men) because everyone agreed that women would be less war-like than men. Maybe that is the case here, but the women’s aggressiveness and sexual predation makes it seem like they are just men with ovaries, so I’m not sure why they would be like men when it comes to sex, but not when it comes to war. I didn’t believe it.
I’ve also seen it work when it was a matter of sheer numbers–Something Happened and now there were just a lot more surviving women than men.
That’s another way it can work.
An interesting variation on the whole governmental matriarchy is the Lynn Flewelling books, both THE BONE DOLL’S TWIN and the LUCK IN THE SHADOWS series, where the country always has a queen (or a regent, if the queen in not available). This is for reasons of tradition and religion. From the throne on down, the society is more egalitarian, as I recall.