Review: Behind the Throne, by K.B. Wagers

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Dec 20 20:42:18 PST 2020

Behind the Throne
by K.B. Wagers

Series:    Indranan War #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: August 2016
ISBN:      0-316-30859-5
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     416

Hail is a gunrunner, an outlaw and criminal, someone who knows how to
survive violence and navigate by personal loyalty. That world knows her
as Cressen Stone. What her colleagues don't know is that she's also an
Imperial Princess. Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol left that world twenty
years earlier in secret pursuit of her father's killer and had no
intention of returning. But her sisters are dead, her mother's health
is failing, and two Imperial Trackers have been sent to bring her back
to her rightful position as heir.

I'm going to warn up-front that the first half of this novel was rough
to the point of being unreadable. Wagers tries much too hard to
establish Hail as a reluctant heroine torn between her dislike of royal
protocols and her grief and anger at the death of her sisters. The
result is excessively melodramatic and, to be frank, badly written.
There are a lot of passages like this:

  His words slammed into me, burning like the ten thousand volts of a
  Solarian Conglomerate police Taser.

(no, there's no significance to the Solarian Conglomerate here), or,
just three paragraphs later:

  The air rushed out of my lungs. Added grief for a niece I'd never
  known. One more log on the pyre set to burn my freedom to ashes. The
  hope I'd had of getting out of this mess was lost in that instant,
  and I couldn't do anything but stare at Emmory in abject shock.

Given how much air rushes out of Hail's lungs and how often she's
struck down with guilt or grief, it's hard to believe she doesn't have
brain damage.

Worse, Hail spends a great deal of the first third of the book whining,
which given that the book is written in first person gets old very
quickly. Every emotion is overwritten and overstressed as Hail rails
against obvious narrative inescapability. It's blatantly telegraphed
from the first few pages that Hail is going to drop into the imperial
palace like a profane invasion force and shake everything up, but the
reader has to endure far too long of Hail being dramatically
self-pitying about the plot. I almost gave up on this book in
irritation (and probably should have).

And then it sort of grew on me, because the other thing Wagers is doing
(also not subtly) is a story trope for which I have a particular
weakness: The fish out of water who nonetheless turns out to be the
person everyone needs because she's systematically and deliberately
kind and thoughtful while not taking any shit. Hail left Pashati young
and inexperienced, with a strained relationship with her mother and a
habit of letting her temper interfere with her ability to negotiate
palace politics. She still has the temper, but age, experience, and
confidence mean that she's decisive and confident in a way she never
was before. The second half of this book is about Hail building her
power base and winning loyalty by being loyal and decent. It's still
not great writing, but there's something there I enjoyed reading.

Wagers's setting is intriguing, although it makes me a bit nervous. The
Indranan Empire was settled by colonists of primarily Indian
background. The court trappings, mythology, and gods referenced in
Behind the Throne are Hindu-derived, and I suspect (although didn't
confirm) that the funeral arrangements are as well. Formal wear (and
casual wear) for women is a sari. There's a direct reference to the
goddess Lakshimi (not Lakshmi, which Wikipedia seems to indicate is the
correct spelling, although transliteration is always an adventure).

I was happy to see this, since there are more than enough SF novels out
there that seem to assume only western countries go into space. But I'm
never sure whether the author did enough research or has enough
personal knowledge to pull off the references correctly, and I
personally wouldn't know the difference.

The Indranan Empire is also matriarchal, and here Wagers goes for an
inversion of sexism that puts men in roughly the position women were in
the 1970s. They can, in theory, do most jobs, but there are many things
they're expected not to do, there are some explicit gender lines in
power structures, and the role of men in society is a point of
political conflict. It's skillfully injected as social background, with
a believable pattern of societal prejudice that doesn't necessarily
apply to specific men in specific situations. I liked that Wagers did
this without giving the Empire itself any feminine-coded
characteristics. All admirals are women because the characters believe
women are obviously better military leaders, not because of some
claptrap about nurturing or caring or some other female-coded reason
from our society.

That said, this gender role inversion didn't feel that significant to
the story. The obvious "sexism is bad, see what it would be like if men
were subject to it" message ran parallel to the main plot and never
felt that insightful to me. I'm therefore not sure it was successful or
worth the injection of sexism into the reading experience, although it
certainly is different from the normal fare of space empires.

I can't recommend Behind the Throne because a lot of it just isn't very
good. But I still kind of want to because I sincerely enjoyed the last
third of the book, despite some lingering melodrama. Watching Hail
succeed by being a decent, trustworthy, loyal, and intelligent person
is satisfying, once she finally stops whining. The destination is
probably not worth the journey, but now that I've finished the first
book, I'm tempted to grab the second.

Followed by After the Crown.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-20


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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