I’m a sucker for stories that take place underground, so when I saw the cover and title of Catherine Asaro’s new book, Undercity, I knew I had to break my commitment to not start a new series until I’d finished all the other ones first. (For the last seven months I’ve read only books that continue or finish a series I’ve previously started.)
When she was an orphaned child, Major Bhaajan used to live in the dark dirty tunnels under the city of Cries. She was one of the dust rats — the kids who run in packs through the tunnels. They live in poverty, are malnourished, don’t go to school, and have few opportunities. Bhaajan was hard-working and motivated, though. She left the Undercity when she joined the military, and she hoped never to return to Cries. Now, retired from the military, she works as a private investigator. Her current case, which is paying a huge amount of money, has brought her back to Cries and the Undercity.
Cries is ruled by a royal matriarchy. They keep their men covered and secluded. (It’s not clear why the men, who must be more physically powerful than the women, go along with this.) Bhaajan’s first task in Cries is to find a gorgeous runaway prince. She will need to get help from some old friends, including a former lover. As she investigates, she uncovers a plot involving human trafficking, illegal drugs and guns, and a brewing gang war that may destroy the Undercity. As she tries to solve the case and prevent a war, her sense of justice is constantly disturbed by the poverty and hopelessness of her former home.
In Asaro’s underground society, it’s easy to see parallels to things we’re dealing with today, especially in America where increasing income inequality causes tension, prejudice, and class conflict. In Asaro’s Undercity, the denizens resent how the upper (literally) class looks down (literally) on them and considers the Undercity culture inferior. Because she grew up there, Bhaajan realizes that the people of the Undercity aren’t stupid or lazy, and they don’t want charity. They just want equal opportunities without having to give up their proud culture and their unwritten laws and codes. Crime is rampant in the underground world. Those above might say that’s because its citizens have low intelligence and morals, but those below would claim that oppression and poverty cause crime.
These concepts aren’t anything new, but they’re interesting in the underground context. I found it especially useful to think about how to ensure equal opportunity for children without undermining their family’s culture or freedoms. For example, when does the government have the right to interfere with the way parents have decided to educate their children? The Libertarian in me gets confused when I think about this. On one hand I think parents should be able to choose how to educate their children, but on the other (bigger) hand, I think all children should get a quality education and that many parents who insist on “unschooling” (an American term which Asaro uses in the book) are denying that right to their kids. This difficulty of granting equal opportunity while preserving liberty and culture is a main theme of the book.
Undercity is the first book in a new trilogy and it’s clear that Bhaajan is going to save the entire society. She’s already part way there. The fact that she’s an orphan who doesn’t know who her parents were makes me wonder if she’s going to eventually find out that she’s really a princess or something. Her goodness, resourcefulness, toughness, intelligence, beauty, nobility of character, and ability to get other people to do good things is kind of hard to believe in, actually, and this is a problem with the story — the protagonist is a real Mary Sue who too quickly and easily accomplishes what she sets out to do. I hope that she grows a few warts in the next installment.
Catherine Asaro is a physicist and her prose sounds like she’s a physicist. It’s concise, to the point, and unadorned. That’s my nice way of saying that it’s nothing special. But this doesn’t surprise me. In my experience, people who have higher degrees in a hard science (I’m including myself) just don’t write beautifully. They write well — they get the point across clearly and efficiently — but you’re not likely to sigh and linger over their prose. I think it’s a different way of thinking. Call it “left-brained” if you like. I couldn’t write a beautiful sentence if my life depended on it. (And see there, I had to resort to a cliché because my brain doesn’t create new figures of speech.) There are a few places in Undercity where Asaro tries to be poetic, and misses. This is usually during romantic scenes or when describing a gorgeous man. Her lover’s “smoldering gaze,” “rippling muscles,” “voice like molasses” and grin that was “potent as aged whisky” didn’t do much for me.
Despite my minor complaints, I enjoyed Undercity well enough, mostly because of the underground setting, the fast-moving plot, and the focus on current social issues. Undercity is related to Catherine Asaro’s SKOLIAN EMPIRE series. I’m happy that I can now put the rest of the SKOLIAN EMPIRE books at the top of my TBR pile since they now qualify as books in series I need to finish. Hee hee hee.
I listened to the Recorded Books’ audio version of Undercity. It’s 11 hours long and read by Suzy Jackson. I thought Ms. Jackson did a great job with the character voices and the pacing. She made one mistake when she didn’t give the computer a nasal voice, as the text indicated, but the rest of the recording was excellent. I will choose this format for the rest of the MAJOR BHAAJAN series.