Book Review: Undercity

(As always, required to state that I got an early copy in exchange for an honest review. I’d write “etc. etc.” but I’m in more of an ibid. mood right now. . .)

This upcoming novel by Dr. Catherine Asaro is the first in a new series, though it originally came into being as a novella for a collection that combined science-fiction and mystery, then known as City of Cries. (I took that title literally the first time, though “Cries” is actually the name of the city. Ha.) Here it’s been expanded to book length, with the first third or so the original story and the rest taking off from a loose end that had no bearing on the climax of the short story.

The one thing I’ve noticed from reading Dr. Asaro is that all of her heroines are incredibly stubborn, from Roca and Soz to Jess Fernandez and Kamoj. That list now includes Major Bhaajan. (On the other hand, no one is more stubborn than Eldrinson, so it’s not just the ladies.) Another note is that they’re all beautiful, though some more than others; Roca appears to be the Marilyn Monroe, in terms of popularity, of her time. But when I read City of Cries I didn’t get much of a picture of the Major, probably because this is told in first person and there was never a convenient mirror around. The only note I can see is when she says her nanomeds give her the health and appearance of a woman in her late twenties, though she’s well into her forties. So if you imagine characters in your mind like I do as you read, you can select your own; as for me, I’m binging on the TV show Continuum right now, so I’m picturing a brunette Rachel Nichols.

So the first important point to the new story is how it connects to its older version, in this case the loose end mentioned above. More importantly, even though I loved Cities, I hated the ending, the villain’s motivation for the huge crime that sent Bhaajan into the narrative in the first place. But now with the expanded story the motive makes a lot more sense.

Besides the major–pun intended–character there are a lot of others, and for me the most important are the royal family of the planet. The Majdas had usually looked bad in previous books, especially with all the arranged marriage stuff, though in “Stained Glass Heart” you get a sense that’s not entirely their fault. In military conflict they come out well, but it’s the fact they’re so socially rigid, living in the past as to how they treat their men and really everyone–the worst traits of royalty– that makes them come off as villains at times. There’s also a whole bunch of them throughout all the stories, which makes it hard to keep them straight. In this book that reputation changes; as described here, they were “scrupulous in their relationships. They treated everyone with the same distant professionalism.” In fact there’s a part where the Major herself is surprised, first by Lavinda and then Vaj, as to how understanding and flexible they can be. Makes me want to go back and read their previous appearances to see if I missed any hints. Though I do admit the little dig Bhaaj got in at the end, comparing Cries to Selei City, made me feel good. . .

Another mention from the literary past but chronological future–it’s tough with stories that take place before so many others–is the drug phorine, which is a minor plot point in The Final Key, when Eldri the Younger is . . . will be hooked on. See what I mean? It leads to a small but intriguing bit that in the end helps the Major’s ultimate goal of helping her people.

As to the undercity of the title, in City of Cries it consisted of Jak’s place, Scorch’s cave, and a description of the aqueducts; never imagined it would become so much more, to the point where even someone who grew up there might get lost. The same goes for Bhaajan; there’s a paragraph about her helping an anthropologist study the ruins as a kid, where he bribed her with cocoa bars to show him artifacts. It makes the hardass major much more human when we find out she’s such a chocolate lover, and for having the sense of humor to say that maybe he should have given her healthy food instead.

Asaro has always been great at characterization, but in this novel she shows how well she can do description. . . not that she couldn’t before, but often I was lost in the futuristic setting of it all, especially when she used math terms. This time she’s depicting ancient ruins and doing so beautifully, some of it artwork–complete with gargoyles–but even more so the architecture of the underground city, built around canals and aqueducts. Another example is at the end, in one of the Majda rooms: “We went to an alcove tiled like a sunrise, with a border along the floor like the horizon of the desert. Above it, the wall shaded from rose hues into lighter blue.” Beautiful.

Asaro has always had a fair amount of humor in her novels, but this one levels up, so to speak; my favorite example is when the Major gets bored during a stakeout and plays a video game while waiting for something to happen. There’s also a love interest unlike anything seen in her previous writings, and the complications of that–is he there to help or hurt her investigation? Or does he just want to sleep with her again?–add a delicious layer to the goings-on, at least in the original short story part.

Between the ground and the underground is an interesting place called The Concourse, a kind of Neutral Zone though not really, because the denizens of the underworld aren’t allowed there. It has shops and nightclubs and stalls, all the stuff tourists would want, as well as a rec center that plays a major part toward the end of the book. Asaro mentions that the tourists think they’re experiencing what it’s like in the “exotic underside of Cries. Yah, right. The Concourse was a glossy cheat.” Immediately I thought of Tijuana, the fake sanitized moneymaking version of a place everyone expects tourists not to go to. . . and I’m gonna keep on going so I don’t end in a preposition. (That was a damn awkward sentence, I know.)

Since I’m a sucker for details, I gotta give a shoutout to the flying spy bug; I remember on Max Headroom the computer genius had such a bug–meant both ways–which worked great until it got squashed. At least this one survives, and plays a big part in what I consider the best scene not only of the book, but that Asaro has ever written. It takes up a lot of pages, but at every point it’s gripping, without any need for action sequences. Quite frankly, this is what creative writing is about. This scene is so amazing I reread it every night; I read it waiting to see the doctor, and when he saw me the first thing he said was, “Why are your eyes red?”

The last thing I expected as I read this was SOCIAL triumph.

And though that’s the climax, it ain’t over. The next-to-last scene–probably too long to call a single scene, but I’m a rebel–is the Major taken to the Majda compound to meet up with who she thinks will be Lavinda, but instead talks to three other members of the royal family. The part with Vaj is the most interesting, as the general spins what happened the previous day–the aforementioned climax–so Bhaajan can see what might have happened instead, how it looked from other eyes. As I said before, the Major is quite stubborn, but not only does she see what the General is saying, but finds a way to assuage those fears and work with her. As the lit professors like to say, story happens when an individual experiences growth, and that’s certainly what occurs here.

The operative word for this tome is HOPE.

There are also some hints of what I hope is to come in the series, especially with the appearance of a new character I instantly loved, Digjan, who has gone from an undercity teen to being considered for the Jagernaut military academy. Hope to see more of her in upcoming books. There’s also a vision by Bhaajan–there’s a note where it’s intimated she might be precognitive–where she sees the Dust Knights as a force of protection throughout the empire: “A chill swept over me, and I had the oddest sense, as if I saw a time centuries beyond this day, an age when the knights had become a legend that served an empire. They were revered throughout the Imperialate, a secret order of protectors even more difficult to join than the Jagernauts, an order based in an exquisite mythical place hidden beneath the oldest city in the Imperialate.” The thought itself is uplifting, and will be all the more so if she does indeed write about them in the future. And hey, it’s got me so hopeful that I volunteer to help train the Dust Knights. . .

Okay, I’m not going to kid you: as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I’m a huge Catherine Asaro fan. I haven’t read much of her fantasy/romance series, but I’m pretty sure I’ve gone through everything else. City of Cries was my favorite story before this came along, so to see it expanded of course made me want to read it all the more. And with all that I can honestly tell you this is the best book/story Dr. Asaro has written. Obviously it’s science-fiction, and the first part is mystery, but in the end it’s also–like good science fiction is supposed to be–social commentary at its finest. The fact that it doesn’t beat you over the head with an anvil is a huge plus.

On a scale from 1 to 5, this is a 6. . .

;o)

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