Book review: Undercity, by Catherine Asaro

16 10 2017

Catherine Asaro is an American teacher, dancer, and science fiction writer who has received multiple Nebula and Hugo nominations, and has won the Nebula Award and many other awards. She’s best known for her series of novels on the Skolian Empire, the first of which, Primary Inversion, I’ve previously reviewed here.

Undercity

Undercity is set in and beneath the city of Cries, a long-established enclave on the desert planet of Raylicon. Its protagonist and narrator is Bhaajan, former military officer, now PI, who’s hired by the royal (and strictly matriarchal) House of Majda to find, and hopefully rescue, a kidnapped prince, Dayjarind. Bhaajan’s military chops are one reason she’s been given the high-stakes assignment; her reputation for discretion is another. The principal reason she’s hired by the Majda, though, is her upbringing as an orphan within the subterranean slums and catacombs which those of Cries’ above-ground citizenry know only as a refuge for thieves and bandits.

Undercity is billed, on its back-cover blurb, as a SF detective novel, which is a bit misleading. Yes, it’s undeniably SF (my ongoing quibbles about Asaro’s treatment of psionic properties notwithstanding): the future history and technology of the Skolian Empire storyline is detailed and intriguing. Yes, Bhaajan (‘Bhaaj’ to her friends) is a detective, in the fearless charmed-life mould of someone who knows her military training, cybernetic enhancements, and gadgetry can extricate her from most predicaments (she also seems pretty good at talking her way out of a crisis, although she manages to talk herself into a few as well). And yes, she has a case to solve. But she solves it a third of the way through the book; the rest, in essence is cleanup. Which, counterintuitively, is the more interesting part of the novel, as Bhaaj turns from ‘detective’ to ‘troubleshooter’, seeking to avert or at least contain a brewing catastrophe set in motion by the plot she’s uncovered. This shift in roles is in some respects clumsy, and it seems to take the novel a couple of chapters to find its feet again after the resolution of the prince’s kidnapping. But in its later chapters especially, the book strikes an effective seam of Golden-Age-style storytelling, satisfyingly conveyed with pathos and emotional depth, as Asaro mines a strongly moving story from the hidden depths of her worldbuilding. In the final analysis, with its heroics, its big personalities and its dynasties, it’s more a work of hard(ish) space opera than anything else, less a tale of detection than of action and reflection.

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