Seven Devils by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May

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Seven Devils by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Alex Mitchell
Reviewed by Alex Mitchell
Summary: The first book in a feminist space opera duology brings likeable characters and some interesting additions to the traditional formula to make an enjoyable read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 464 Date: August 2020
Publisher: Gollancz
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473231146

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Eris is one of the foremost operatives of the Novantae, a resistance movement fighting against the ruthlessly expansionist Tholosian Empire – an Empire she was destined to inherit in her past life as Princess Discordia, whom everyone believed has been dead for years. Clo, an ace pilot for the Novantae, has a mission: hijack a Tholosian spacecraft to gather information vital to the war effort. Although she's less than pleased to discover that her former friend Eris is her partner on this mission. Things get more interesting as the mission commences; aboard the ship are three defectors with a secret that could potentially cripple the Empire. Eris's brother Damocles, the runner-up heir to the Empire, is plotting to disrupt peace talks between Tholos and the last of the free alien species. It's a race against time as the rebels move to put a stop Damocles' plans, with millions of lives hanging in the balance…

When I first opened up the book, I discovered the book was dedicated to all the people who wish to "smash the patriarchy", I was initially a little apprehensive about the book. While I do believe in the message of feminism, I was a little worried that the book was going to prioritise getting the message across over telling the story. But, as I started reading it, I was pleasantly surprised that the book wasn't overly preachy, I don't think the word "patriarchy" was mentioned once in the actual story itself. The story, despite being a fairly generic Evil Empire vs Heroic Rebels space opera, was still thoroughly enjoyable and the characters are likeable enough to stand up on their own. So, despite my initial misgivings about the book and the setting, I still grew to like it and would recommend it to fans of space operas and science fiction epics.

My favourite part of the book was probably the characters. The book has five main viewpoint characters. The Eris, formerly princess Discordia, heir to the Tholosian Empire, who has had to endure hellish training to get to where she is – a training that killed all of her sisters and all but one of her brothers. While she outwardly seems quite cold and distant, it conceals a softer, more spiritual side to her, such as giving the Tholosian soldiers she kills the last rites. There is also Clo, a pilot for the Novantae who grew up in a slum on the boggy world of Myndalia. Her dialogue is written in quite a strong Scottish or Irish brogue, and she often drops her home planet's regional swear words, such as "silt", "marsh" and "fluming", into her dialogue, which did make her a little hard to take seriously at times and seemed like a strange dialogue choice, since she and indeed most of the rest of the cast aren't averse to swearing. Once they get aboard the starship Zelus, the novel gains three additional viewpoint characters. The first of these is Nyx, a hard-edged former member of the Tholosian Palace Guard. The second is Rhea, an ex-courtesan and Damocles' former mistress, who also has some mild emotional control ability, who acts as the group's primary source of moral support. The third is Aridane, a very cheerful and energetic teenage girl who helped write the code for the Oracle, and as such acts as the gang's resident tech genius, and has a strong fear of being seen as useless or redundant. They're also joined by Cato, the Zelus's former co-pilot who spends most of the book being de-programmed by the resistance, but soon ends up becoming quite useful once he, since he also has some knowledge of medicine. The two of them are overseen by the Novantae's co-commanders Sher, one of the few men on the heroes' side, and Kyla, a former soldier mentioned to have been assigned male at birth, but had her gender identity suppressed by The Oracle. The gang are opposed by the Tholosian Empire, headed up the elderly Archon and his heir General Damocles. Unlike his sister, Damocles is a brutal, sadistic, Machiavellian schemer who would quite happily murder millions of people in the name of ensuring his rise to power.

While the setting of the novel does follow a lot of the conventions of your average space opera, there are bits and pieces of worldbuilding scattered throughout that help differentiate it from other examples in fiction. Whereas most evil empires vat-grow their storm troopers, the Tholosians vat-grow everyone – every single member of their entire society is engineered from conception to fulfil a specific role and serve the Empire. For example, the reigning Archon decides his successor by growing 100 children, 50 male and 50 female, and making them all eliminate each other until only two remain, who are in turn crowned The Heir and The Spare (the latter ascends to the throne in the event that the former dies before the current Archon does). An incredibly powerful AI called the Oracle oversees the entire empire, with a fragment of it located inside each of the empire's starships, supressing dissenting thoughts and ensuring absolute loyalty to the end – taking over their brains if necessary. One of the more interesting aspects of the setting is the Tholosians' religion, a vaguely Greco-Roman religion which revolves around the eponymous Seven Devils. At the end of the story, the group names themselves this as a deliberate slight against the empire they oppose. Also, despite it being a fairly standard space opera setting, there are very few alien species shown – mostly because the Tholosians have driven most of them to extinction. The only major non-human species in the book are the Evoli, and even then they're implied to be humans that genetically modified themselves to better adapt to their new home-world. It's these small tweaks to the space opera formula that add a massive amount to its enjoyability for me.

So, overall this is an enjoyable story with excellent characters and a setting just familiar enough for space opera fans, but with enough additions to the formula to make it more refreshing.

Similar books by other authors:
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine - Another interesting mix of space opera and political thrills.
The Serrano Connection: Omnibus Two by Elizabeth Moon - A collection of space opera short stories with strong feminist elements.

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