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The Price of the Stars by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald

Cover art by Romas

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Space opera is often viewed as a suspect genre. The name itself began as a term of opprobrium, a way of indicating that the critic views it as nothing more than a mundane adventure story -- perhaps a western or a crime drama or a sea story -- recycled in space. The hard-sf fan is annoyed that the technology is mere handwavium, lacking in scientific rigor. The literati disdain it on the grounds that a story should not be tarted up with unnecessary unrealistic elements, and that departures from the mimetic ideal must justify themselves by accomplishing something that a strictly realistic story cannot.

Although most of the early popular science fiction stories of the pulp era were tales of adventure in the wide-open vistas of space as it was then imagined, by the 1940's and 1950's works in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and E E "Doc" Smith had fallen into disrepute. Part of it was the rapid development of post-War technology which made science fiction dreams of the Golden Age such as television, computers, and space rockets into science fact, editors such as John W. Campbell insisted on solid scientific underpinnings for their stories and proudly announced that there would be no adventure stories recycled in space in the pages of their magazines.

Yet the longing for stories of grand adventures in the wide-open future refused to die, however they might be scorned by the arbiters of good taste. Although the original Star Trek television series was canceled after a mere three seasons, its fans refused to let it die, keeping it alive in fanzines and later in professional publications. A decade later Star Wars exploded onto the big screen, setting box office records that would stand for two decades.

Yes, the people wanted their grand vistas of galaxy-spanning civilizations at war, critical and educational scorn be damned. So by the 1980's and 1990's there was a huge resurgance of space opera in the grand tradition of the pulps. Yet there was a difference in the new stories, the product of the sea-changes of the tumultuous 1960's and 1970's. No longer would space opera be solely the province of white male heroes fighting stereotyped Others in simplistic cultural settings. Instead we start to see the sociological complexities pioneered by such writers as Frank Herbert and Ursula K. Le Guin woven into straight-up adventure stories.

The Mageworlds series shows the effects of this cross-pollination quite well. For instance, we have the lone protagonist going rogue in order to seek out a killer and avenge a family member -- but Beka Rosselin-Metadi is a young woman, the scion of the matriarchy of a world destroyed in the last war with the sinister Mageworlds. Her mother chose a reformed space pirate as her consort, with the understanding that she would choose the genetic sires of her children according to her own lights.

When we first meet Beka, she's working as co-pilot on a tramp freighter that's just put in at Waycross, a rather shady spaceport far from civilized worlds. In the brief interchange with the bartender of the spacegoing equivalent of a waterfront dive, we get to see the fundamentals of her character, from the drive and determination that led her to rebel against the constraints of high birth and make her own way in the galaxy to the cultured upbringing she can never quite efface from her speech.

She has no sooner revealed her identity with a slip of dialect and register control than she is met by a man who addresses her as Domina, the title held by her mother. Even as she avers that she is not even a gentlewoman, just a common spacer, she recognizes this man -- Master Ransome, the Adept to whom all Adepts look when leadership is needed. He takes her to her father, Jos Metadi, and his old ship, the Warhammer.

Beka's mother is dead, in what was intended to look like an accident after a narrowly-averted assassination attempt. However, there were just too many coincidences for a true accident, so Jos Metadi wants to find out who was responsible for arranging that series of coincidences that killed Domina Perada-Rosselin of the ruined planet of Entibor. In return, Beka gets the Warhammer, free and clear with no questions asked.

So Beka is off on a journey that will carry her across the civilized worlds and into some that aren't. However, her years on tramp freighters haven't prepared her for this mission. She's no more than arrived on Mandeyn, thinking to connect with some old friends and put together a crew, whan she's attacked by an unseen assailant.

A mysterious gray-haired stranger offers her help, in return for completing some peculiar maneuvers. Although she's uneasy about this man, whom she calls the Professor for lack of any better name to call him (shades of the Doctor in Dr. Who), she doesn't have a whole lot of options, not with the underworld of the galaxy arrayed against her.

After meeting Beka, we're introduced to her two brothers. First is Ari, who is a lieutenant in Space Force. A powerful giant of a man, he's planetside with a friend when he's accosted by a Selvaur, a sapient carnivorous sauroid who is quite distressed that his human companion is dying. Ari can speak the Selvaurs' rumbling language, the result of having been fostered among the Forest Lords -- and suddenly I'm recalling the Venusian swamp dragons of Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile novel Between Planets and how the protagonist's ability to speak their whistling language served him so well at several key points in the plot. Whether this character was a conscious homage to the Grandmaster, I can't say for certain, but if it was, it certainly was a nice touch.

Ari's attempt to save the Selvaur's human companion soon leads him to decide that something suspicious is going on, and off he goes to investigate. He connects with an old friend, Llannat Hyfid the Adept, and lays a desperate plan.

Then we meet Beka's younger brother Owen, himself an Adept. Except there's one big problem -- in order to escape the price on her head, Beka has faked her own death and is traveling in the guise of a gunslinger from a distant world. Owen is able to use his Adept talents (reminiscent of the Jedi or the Shaolin monks) to locate her, but in the process he drew the attention of the people who want her brother Ari eliminated.

So now Beka's facing the choice of accepting an assassin's assignment on her own brother or breaking the cover of her false identity. Getting out of that one involves a fight so fast and hot that it ends up with Ari and his companion Mistress Llannat the Adept as crew on Beka's ship, chasing across the galaxy in search of the identity of a murderer.

And that's just the first half of the book, which is itself the first volume of a trilogy. Before this volume is done, we'll glimpse the mysterious Magelords and see they're not quite what everyone assumes them to be, and discover hints of far-reaching conspiracies and plots reaching across the generations. Not to mention fights, chases, betrayals and sudden reversals of fortune, and plenty of little nods to other works in the genre. What's not to love?

Review posted August 20, 2012.

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