Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review of The Last Hawk

The Last Hawk is the third published novel in Catherine Asaro's Saga of the Skolian Empire series. The books within this romantic science fiction series are written about several different characters and many of the books can stand alone. The Last Hawk is the first book about Kelric, the Imperator's half brother and heir, whose story is continued in Ascendant Sun. Although this novel takes place outside of the Skolian Empire, it works well on its own and is a decent introduction to the series. It's also my favorite Skolian Saga book so far because of its well-developed society and excellent characters.

When Kelric's ship is attacked by the Traders, he is forced to land on the planet Coba before his vessel's last engine fails. The inhabitants are frightened to discover the nearly dead man is not from their world since they do not want to be part of the Skolian Empire and have convinced Imperial Space Command to mark them as a restricted world. If Kelric were to return home, the news that there was no reason not to incorporate Coba into the empire would spread and their society would be ruined. Although they feel threatened by his presence, two of the most powerful women within the matriarchy are intrigued by the handsome stranger so he is cared for and his ship is destroyed.

While Kelric is recovering, he becomes excellent at playing Quis, an intricate game that is interwoven into Coban politics. The strongest estates on the planet are those whose managers (queens) are the best players, aided by the skills of their Calani. The Calani is comprised of the very best male Quis players, whose lives are dedicated to serving their estate through their skills at the game. These men are bound by very strict rules and must take a vow to avoid reading, writing, contact with the outside world, and speaking to most people.

After discovering the deliberate destruction of his ship, Kelric becomes very upset and attempts to escape. He very nearly succeeds at stealing one of the Coban ships, and once he is recaptured, one of the managers suggests he should be executed just in case he ever does manage to leave. Deha, the manager of the fourth most powerful estate, has fallen for Kelric and saves him by making him one of her Calani and her husband. Thus begins Kelric's role as a political pawn - and sought-ought commodity - for the women of Coba.

With many books, there is one particular strength, but I felt this one excelled on all levels. It kept a great pace from start to finish, the society was fascinating, and the characters all felt unique. The Last Hawk also had a lot of diversity and it would be too narrow to classify it as a science fiction adventure or romantic science fiction. There was politics, action, focus on character relationships with some romance, and some elements of hard science fiction.

Although this novel is told from the perspective of several different characters, the main point of view character is Kelric, the Imperial heir from an empire with gender equality where his sister could be the next Imperator as easily as he. It's hard not to love and empathize with Kelric. Not only does quiet, reserved Kelric have no freedom due to being an outsider but also due to being a male in a world dominated by females. Coba is a study in complete gender reversal from the normal patriarchy - the women make the rules and decisions, the women pursue the men, the women only want to marry virgins, and the women have certain expectations for how men should behave.

Matriarchies have been done before and just making the society function exactly like a patriarchy could make it seem stale, but it did not even though it was not very subtle. I've read many books in which the female lead is in the middle of a love triangle, but I honestly cannot think of a single book where the main male protagonist was part of one. In The Last Hawk, the man is the exotic beauty pursued by hordes of women, the one with an ability that makes him special (his mastery of Quis). By writing from the perspective of the hero, the feminist aspects never seem heavy-handed or preachy. It's very clear that Kelric is equal to the women, not inferior. Also, each woman is very different and some are more sexist than others. One manager believed all men should dress in robes and only smile at their wives, and another caused a stir by promoting a man to a position previously only held by females.

In addition to the matriarchy, the culture is defined by Quis and its role in the civilization. For centuries, everyone has played Quis, a game played with colored dice. Wars are not waged through battle but via the game. One of the strongest assets to a manager is her Calani and Calani who have belonged to other estates are particularly prized for their knowledge and the political advantage the estate ruler gains from it. The most influential Quis players put some of themselves into the game and as various rulers play with each other, the ideas spread throughout the twelve estates. Quis is also used for figuring out scientific and mathematic concepts.

At times, I did have to suspend my disbelief with this novel but it was good enough that I mostly told my brain to just shut up and enjoy the story. The main part I had to quit thinking about was how it was possible for Quis to be able to convey so much. The way it was described with dice and colors that had some symbolism and a few rules about which shapes and colors could be next to each other made it seem very simple. This was explained when Kelric was first learning the game and could be attributed to taking baby steps. It was vague enough later that I decided to just go with it, especially since I loved the concept, and after that, I could find explanations for the other parts I found a bit incredulous. Initially, Kelric's aptitude for Quis seemed believable since he had an internal computer system that helped him. Ever since his injury, this system had been malfunctioning and it was soon unable to help him, though, but he still continued to become an amazing player. It does make sense that he would be better at it than average due to his more advanced knowledge of science, math, and military strategy and would account for him being a genius at it. Also, every woman thought Kelric was beautiful, which seemed a bit over the top, but could also be explained by the fact that he was an exotic foreigner, plus his family had dabbled in genetic engineering. This also did not bother me too much since it was very much a reversal of the usual woman who is loved by every man who sees her. The aspect that I found most difficult to swallow was how willing several of these women were to trust a foreigner who seemed to have some dangerous tendencies. However, some women were more accepting than others and it was explained that Deha believed in him because she understood him from playing Quis with him. The others just wanted to like him because they thought he was pretty and it is true that people can be blinded by beauty.

The Last Hawk is one of those rare books with an entertaining story, great characters, and a fantastic culture. It's easily my favorite book I have read so far this year.



orannia said...

Thank you Kristen! I tried the first Catherine Asaro book last year and it didn't grab me...not sure why.

I think your review has persuaded me to give the series another go :)

Kristen said...

Orannia - Did you try reading Primary Inversion (first book published) or Skyfall (first book chronologically)? I've read both of those and enjoyed them both (but not as much as this one!).

Nephtis said...

Kristen, I don't think I've seen a 9.5 from you before. I'm glad you liked it! As I mentioned, I re-read The Last Hawk the other day for the 3rd time, and it was still a very fast, exciting read, but the impact does lessen, so I have to go off my initial impressions.

I had really liked the gender reversal. On one hand, it was almost a straight-forward reversal of the gender attitudes and stereotypes in our society, with no new twists or adjustments for biological differences. Yet it came across so shocking and subversive when these attitudes were shown to be so pervasive and natural. To think of it, all the gender stereotypes we hold are fairly arbitrary. Why is a woman's virtue more important than a man's? Coba has always believed the opposite.

The Last Hawk provides a nice cultural context for the world of the Skolian Empire. The original Ruby Dynasty was a rigidly matriarchal society, where women were physically larger than men and firmly in the role of warriors/rulers. The Skolian empire is a modern society that has achieved gender equality, the way the Western world has (more or less), yet there are still echoes and hints of the old stereotypes. So Kurj as the Imperator was more progressive and challenging of the tradition than, say, Soz being one. Or like in the latest Asaro book I read, The Diamond Star, Roca reacts to her son's burgeoning career as a rock singer with fear for his modesty, "Your clothing is too sexy! You'll give women the wrong idea!" These are all little elements that give the Skolian Empire a subtle feel of different, and The Last Hawk illustrates the origins of those beliefs - the oppressive past that the Skolians have overcome.

So every time you see a Skolian man who's a fighter, a trader, a scientist, a diplomat, think how awesome it is that their society is so advanced that men can have positions equal to women, and not just reduced to the roles of consorts/homemakers.

Nephtis said...

I can count 13 books written so far in the Skolian Empire series by Catherine Asaro:

1. Primary Inversion
2. The Radiant Seas
3. Catch the Lightning
4. The Last Hawk
5. Ascendant Sun
6. Quantum Rose
7. Spherical Harmonic
8. The Moon's Shadow
9. The Ruby Dice
10. The Diamond Star
11. Skyfall (prequel)
12. Schism (prequel)
13. The Final Key (prequel)

They're all different, focusing on various members of the royal family and tilting between science fiction, space opera, and romance. The Last Hawk is probably the strongest book, despite being only the 3rd written. It's self-contained, requires no prior knowledge, doesn't have the large scientific infodumps (altough I personally dig those, at least the first time around), and very solidly written. My personal favorites are still the Primary Inversion/The Radiant Seas duology, because I heart Soz (if you ever see posts under Soz or Sauscony Valdoria on the OF board, you know who it is). You haven't read The Ruby Dice, yet, have you? Ok, then I won't say any more, although I don't know how you can resist yet-unread Skolian books out there.

You may find Ascendant Sun a let down. My mother certainly did, after being enraptured with The Last Hawk (and she's a strictly romance-only reader ordinarily).

The Diamond Star was good. It was deliberately different - focused on one of the younger of Soz's brothers and mainly romantic in feel, requiring no backstory, yet more saturated and stronger than Skyfall. And sweet. I totally teared up at the end. I love this family.

Kristen said...

Nephtis - It's not often that I get out a 9.5. I gave some out for Sarah Monette's books and some of the Wraeththu books (one book in each of those series were my only 10 scores).

The gender reversal was very straightforward but it was also very interesting for the reason you mention - it was definitely not a biological difference but one ingrained into the society. And there were a couple of times it did make me wonder why we do hold some of those gender stereotypes. Seeing them in reverse actually made me realize there were some gender roles that I've seen done so often that I really don't expect to read about it happening any other way. I do love the way Asaro handles the issue of virtue. Although I didn't like her fantasy book as much as the Skolian ones, there was one part I loved: a young engaged couple were found in bed together and the man was then told he couldn't marry her anymore - she's not a virgin! To which the woman replied, "Well, he's no virgin either!" It was such a great moment, both funny and unexpected. After I read it, though, I found it strange that it was something I hadn't read before - why should it be unusual to see roles challenged like that?

Asaro has created a very interesting culture with the Skolians and the original Ruby Dynasty. I hadn't really thought about the fact that men achieving equality was such an accomplishment but I'll be keeping that in mind as I read the rest of the books now.

That was something else I appreciated about The Last Hawk - that it didn't have the large infodumps. There were some parts of The Radiant Seas that gave me some trouble because of that, although the rest of the book more than made up for it (at least once it stopped being all about all the children Soz had). I do love Soz, too, though.

No, I haven't read The Ruby Dice yet. That's actually one of the very few books in the series I don't even own (the only others being Catch the Lightning and Diamond Star). I'll get to them all eventually and I'll be sad when there aren't any more left to read.

I'm worried about reading Ascendant Sun now but it's probably the one I'll read next since I've heard that's the best one to read first out of the ones that take place after The Radiant Seas. And I really want to know what happens after that!

Benjamin said...

The Last Hawk was one of my favorites when I read it years ago and it still is. Part of it is probably Kelric being desired by all the women really appealing to a teenage boy. :P But it's also very good for all the reasons that have been mentioned. I really liked the concept of Quis and how the entire culture was absorbed by the game.

I liked Ascendant Sun simply because it had Kelric in it so it wasn't a letdown for me. I had a little trouble with The Radiant Seas as the storytelling was differnt from Primary Inversion. But that's just me.

My tastes have changed slightly since then so I haven't read past The Quantum Rose but I'd still recommend the series. It's also nice how each book is more or less self-contained.

Kristen said...

Benjamin - Yay, another fan of The Last Hawk! :) I loved the concept of Quis as well. Have you read The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks? That was one of my favorite books I read last year; I seem to like books that involve games as a major part of the culture.

I did love Kelric so hopefully reading about him will be fun even if Ascendant Sun isn't as good.

Has anyone read Alpha, a non-Skolian sci fi book by Catherine Asaro? I went to the bookstore to get Sins & Shadows today and ended up picking that one up as well (and a couple of others because I couldn't resist).

Benjamin said...

No, I haven't read Player of Games. I tried Consider Phlebas last year and wasn't impressed, but now I hear it isn't his best Culture novel. Maybe I'll give Player a shot.

Can't help you on Asaro's Alpha, sorry. I know Asaro has written several fantasy novels as well but I haven't read those either.

orannia said...

Kristen - it was Primary Inversion I tried. I just got bogged down in the technical descrptions. I'm one of those people who is happy to know that X works in a certain way and voila :) Unfortunately, I can't seem to apply the same concept to time travel!

Kristen said...

Benjamin - I haven't read Consider Phlebas yet so I'm not sure how it compares to Player of Games, but I usually hear the latter is one of his better books.

Alpha looks interesting. I have read the first book in Asaro's fantasy series. It wasn't as good as the Skolian series but it kept me reading anyway.

Orannia - The Last Hawk doesn't have nearly as many technical descriptions as Primary Inversion. If you wanted to try the series, I'd recommend trying that one first instead.