The Course of Empire by Eric Flint & K. D. Wentworth (Empire 1) a Review


The reason I am reviewing The Course of Empire now is that the second part The Cruible of Empire will be out next month (March 16, 2010). This is the first book in a series about an alien invasion of earth by the Jao that changes into something else under the pressure of yet another more menacing alien race, the Ekhat bent on exterminating all non Ekhat life from the universe. It holds interesting alien point-of-views (pov), alternatives to violence and an unusual positive treatment of collaborateurs.

Product description

Conquered by the Jao twenty years ago, the Earth is shackled under alien tyranny – and threatened by the even more dangerous Ekhat, one of whose genocidal extermination fleets is coming to the solar system. The only chance for human survival is in the hands of an unusual pair of allies: a young Jao prince, newly arrived to Terra to assume his duties, and a young human woman brought up amongst the Jao occupiers.

But, as their tentative alliance takes shape, they are under pressure from all sides. A cruel Jao viceroy on one side, determined to drown all opposition in blood; a reckless human resistance on the other, which is perfectly prepared to shed it. Added to the mix is the fact that only by adopting some portions of human technology and using human sepoy troops can the haughty Jao hope to defeat the oncoming Ekhat attack – and then only by fighting the battle within the sun itself.

The Authors

Eric Flint has written some of my favorite science fiction series 1632 and Wages of Sin. One of his strenghts is collaborations as in 1633 and Crown of Slaves with David Weber. I haven’t read his Belisarius series written with David Drake, but I have it on my to-read list. Eric Flint is noted as the editor of the Baen Free Library, and I love Baen Free Library, I have found a number of new authors and series there. His website Ericflint.com is one the best sites on the net for Snippets from new books not only from Baens.

K. D. Wentworth is author of seven novels according to wikipedia, including Black on Black and Stars Over Stars for Baen, and more than fifty short stories. Her latest novel is This Fair Land (Hawk), an alternate history fantasy of the era of Columbus. I haven’t read anything else by her but I am inclined to do so after reading The Course of Empire.

Info/Format

This is the paperback version with 672 pages
published by Baen March 1, 2005
Cover Art by Bob Eggleton

First in the book is the Cast of Characters with a very usefull explanation of Jao naming conventions at the end you need to be familiar with.

At the end of the book there is a Glossary of Jao Terms that might be usefull to read before or while reading the story. I felt no particular need for it though, you can easily determine meaning from the story.

Also at the end are two Appendixes, one explaining the Ekhat and the other Interstellar Travel, save reading them after the story as they explain some of what surprised me about the Ekhat.

Plot

The Jao invaded and conquered earth some twenty years ago after. The conquest haven’t turned out well for the Jao or for humanity. The Jao doesn’t understand humans and treat them like animals trying to subdue them into submission and servitude. The humans see the Jaos as inhumane and uncaring, prone to kill for the slightest mistakes.

We get to follow the point of views from both human and alien sides. The main protagonists are the promising young  Jao male Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak and the daughter of the Jao’s Native President of North America Caitlin Alana Stockwell, a hostage. Aille belongs to a krinnu (clan) in conflict with the Narvo the clan that has been ruling earth since the conquest. He arrive as the newly appointed sub-commander of all ground forces on earth. His, his clan especially but all Jao in general approach to conflict is association, this clashes with Governor Oppuk’s brutal ways. He starts to pick up humans into his personal service, among them Tully, an agent for the resistance that still abide in mountainous regions, Rafe Aguilera, a former tank commander now refitting human weapons with Jao tech, a professor researching Jao society and eventually Caitlin who grew up with Jaos and understands them better than any human alive.

The Jao clans compete to further their blood lines positions and glory. Only one group the mysterious Bond of Ebezon act for the whole of the Jao race and they have long time plans for earth, that are now coming into fruition.

The first two thirds of the book deals with the screwed up situation on earth. I enjoyed the alien pov which you get from both Aille and Oppuk.

The last third deals with the solution even if a large part of it is the fight with the Ekhat. The Jao were once created as servants to the Ekhat but rebelled. The Jao conquer other races to prepare them for defense against the Ekhat not for building Empires, which is a bit weird consider the title. I wouldn’t want to spoil the Ekhat for you by telling to much, they are truly alien in a unique way (at least from my reading).

Ideas

I belive there is an underlying idea by the authors that association and collaboration is a stronger and better tool to resolve differences than violence that reflects back to our own time and “the War on Terror”. I have no confirmation of it but it sounds reasonable given the book.

Characterization

Characterization is much better than one usually get in military science fiction. I got some C. J. Cherryh feelings there inspired by the name Tully I guess (Channur Saga) but the characterization is great, the characters grow, especially the ones you root for, but even the brutal Governor Oppuk has his own understandable rationalities. He is colored by the fierce fighting ever experienced by the Jao in conquering earth and especially the US so he treats the humans as clever animals and tries to subdue them.

The alien point-of-view is masterly done, the aliens are not humans in different skins, they do have different understandable motivations.

World Building

The Jao looks like humaniod sea lions with an elaborate stylized way of communicating with geastures and they also have a weird sense of time. A Jao have no use for any time measuring device, they just percieve the flow and arrive at the right time to no end of frustration to their human counterparts. Jao society is explained and experienced in splendid detail. At the beginning it was a bit annoying with all the foreign names but you soon get so immersed in the story that you don’t notice.

One thing I noticed especially was the human collaborators contra the rebels. It is rare to see collaborators portrayed so positive in military science fiction. I read somewhere that the rebels where supposed to be socialists? I never got that feeling, quite the opposite in fact.

Human with our evolved society contra the Jao’s stricter inherited and never questioned society (from their creators) is highlighted in an intresting way by the authors.

My View

This is one of the best alien point of view stories I have read in a long time, the world is vivid and the characters are easy to love. I got very emotional here and there in the story, especially at the end. I would recommend The Course of Empire to anyone intrested in a good alien point of view story or if you are just looking for good science fiction.