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In the Courts of the Crimson Kings by S. M. Stirling

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When alternate history writer S. M. Stirling decided to write an alternate history in which the dreams of early science fiction, of a solar system teeming with abundant life, he started with Venus. In The Sky People he showed us a world of swamps and primitive humans, but with hints of long-ago intervention by ancient races of unknown sophistication, and the possibility of some ongoing monitoring system. In the course of the story we heard mentions of the ancient civilization of Mars, and at the very end we got a glimpse of it, in a way that made clear it would be our destination in the next volume.

And yes, this volume does indeed take us to Mars, where an ancient civilization struggles to stay alive on a planet whose terraforming is slowly failing, where every year the sands of the Deep Beyond advance a little more against the canals that maintain the flow of vital water from the polar seas. Stirling even manages to give us an explanation of why such an ancient and advanced civilization should still be so fond of swordplay, as was the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom and several other early writers' views of Mars -- the Martian civilization is based upon a parallel system of technology known as tembst which is biologically based. Their sophisticated projectile weapons are not firearms, but an advanced form of blowgun that relies upon poison as much as the kinetic energy of the projectile to wound and kill. Since the darts can be turned aside by relatively light armor, Martian fighters prefer to use edged weapons for close combat.

However, there are also some clear differences from the traditional images of Barsoom. For instance, there are no half-naked alien babes in brass bikinis here. Very realistically for a cold and arid world, Stirling's Martians bundle up in thick robes and frequently don masks to protect their faces and lungs from the icy air.

Yet even with that concession to realism, Stirling still manages to get this story into John C. Wright's Space Princess Movement. Although the lovely Teesa whose hand Marc Vitrac won in The Sky People was a leading person of her tribe, she was a "princess" only in the sense that people would call Pocohantas an "Indian Princess," since the Cloud Mountain People, like the various Native American nationalities, were a pre-state people.

Not so the Martians, whose civilization was ancient when Terran humanity was first making its fumbling steps toward a state-level society in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. Once the rulers of the Crimson Dynasty extended their rule from the extinct volcano we Terrans call Olympus Mons to touch every corner of Mars. And although their power has declined in the intervening millenia, the Tollamune Emperors still are the recognized sovereigns of all Martians. The current incumbent of the Ruby Throne, Saijir Sa-Tomond, was born in the same year that Elizabeth the First of England was crowned, and only in recent years has he begun to feel the weight of his years, thanks to generations of careful breeding combined with anti-agathic medicines that have come out of the Martian tembst.

Officially he has no heir closer than the eighth degree, but behind that lies a bitter truth. In a world where good breeding isn't just a matter of proper socialization, but of literally selectively breeding the great families for desired genetic traits, it is considered a crime tantamount to treason to commit theft of the Tollamune genome -- in other words, to bear a child by a member of the Dynasty without official permission. And given that Martian women have conscious control over their reproductive organs, such that no pregnancy is ever an accident, culpability is not merely a matter of sexist blaming of women for being the receptacles of male lust, but of actual fact.

Several decades ago, the Emperor became involved in a relationship with one of his guard unit, Vowin of the Thoughtful Grace caste. Although he had counseled her to wait until he could complete the formalities of making her his official consort, the precarious situation at the time had led her to decide to go ahead and allow herself to become pregnant, for which he had no choice but to condemn her to an agonizing death. But he was able to ensure that she was safely delivered of the child before the sentence was carried out, a child that was subsequently reared secretly and sent away from the City that is a Mountain once her Tollamune heritage became too obvious to ignore.

Terran anthropologist Jeremy Wainman came to Mars hoping to find information on the heydey of Martian tembst in the ruined cities of the Great Beyond. But traveling in those desolate lands is no small undertaking, so he hired a fair-sized retinue and a landship to take him there. Among the retainers he has hired is Teyud za-Zhalt, a Professional Practicioner of Coercive Violence (a term in Martian Demotic that can be used interchangibly to refer to a soldier, a police officer or a bandit). Her refined features mark her out as one of the Thoughtful Grace, unusual so far from the Martian capital. But she is skilled and reliable, so he does not think overly much about it.

In the course of their travels, Jeremy and Teyud become emotionally involved, a somewhat amusing process in a culture where sex is a matter-of-fact medical process and there is literally no way to talk dirty in bed. Literally: their closest equivalent to "f*** me harder" literally means "I desire more energetic intromissive activity."

And then they find a treasurehouse of ancient Martian artifacts in the ruined city, only to discover that one is in fact the long-lost Invisible Crown, the dynastic emblem of the Tollamunes. When Teyud puts it on and is not harmed, she reveals herself for what she is, and suddenly Jeremy is sucked into the politics of a people who make the most sophisticated and Byzantine human politicians look like a bunch of pikers. These people play for keeps, and many applications of their organic technology, particularly as it relates to pain and torment, can get seriously icky.

One of the most striking aspects of this novel is the dry humor that Stirling evinces. His earlier books have rarely shown any humorous aspects, but he manages to play the subtleties of Martian Demotic to get some chuckles from the linguistically knowledgeable. And the first chapter is to die for. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the various science fiction writers who have written about Mars in the last half-century will be laughing in delight while playing the game of spotting all the writers. The only big name to have written about Mars whom I did not recognize in that scene was Kim Stanley Robinson, and if I remember correctly, he didn't enter the field until after the time that scene is set.

I'm just hoping that Stirling will write at least one more novel in this fascinating (and much brighter than many of his dark and gloomy works) universe. The ending of this novel fairly promises at least one more volume, and perhaps we will finally get to find out something solid about the mysterious beings who remodeled entire planets for their own unknown purposes.

Review posted February 1, 2009

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