A spectacular space opera debut perfect for readers of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, inspired by the lives and loves of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.
Princess Altagracia has lost everything. After a bloody civil war, her twin sister has claimed not just the crown of their planet Szayet but the Pearl of its prophecy, a computer that contains the immortal soul of Szayet’s god. Stripped of her birthright, Gracia flees the planet—just as Matheus Ceirran, Commander of the interstellar Empire of Ceiao, arrives in deadly pursuit with his volatile lieutenant, Anita. When Gracia and Ceirran’s paths collide, Gracia sees an opportunity to win back her planet, her god, and her throne…if she can win the Commander and his right-hand officer over first.
But talking her way into Ceirran’s good graces, and his bed, is only the beginning. Dealing with the most powerful man in the galaxy is almost as dangerous as war, and Gracia is quickly torn between an alliance that fast becomes more than political and the wishes of the god—or machine—that whispers in her ear. For Szayet’s sake, and her own, Gracia will need to become more than a princess with a silver tongue. She will have to become a queen as history has never seen before—even if it breaks an empire.
I was taken in by the cover of this book the first time I saw it and how could I resist a space opera reimagining of the story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. I was also very excited because this is the first physical arc I got from Orbit US and that makes it very special. And turns out it was unlike anything I’ve read in a while.
Seeing that it’s a space opera featuring a queen in (almost) exile wanting to get her throne back, and trying to get help from the commander of a huge empire for that purpose, I definitely expected this to be an action packed novel about war. Turns out it’s not. It took me only a few chapters to realize that I might have to recalibrate my expectations and then it was an unusual but fun read. The writing was beautiful and poetic, with lots of lingering conversations which were worded in one way but totally meant something else. This layered writing style is not something I’m used to and it took a while for me to get comfortable with it, and I still don’t know if I understood all the underlying meanings. The world building is also just too vast with so many planets as part of the empire – so many names, their languages and cultures – I don’t think I remember most of them even now after finishing the book, I just went along with it. The story was also very slow paced, with some exciting moments at the beginning and the end, but it was very slice of life for a lot of it in the middle where it felt like nothing was happening – except lots of discussions and musings on philosophy, empire, immortality, religion, god and more which I kinda enjoyed thinking about myself.
Even after reading this almost 500 page book I don’t know what I can tell you about our main characters Gracia and Ceirran. They are unreliable narrators for sure, particularly Gracia who keeps telling us that herself. The story is told in first person POV but as if the protagonists are narrating their story to someone (and us), and the lying was not visible at first, until the book proceeded a bit. But come what may, I still can’t deign what their motivations were and what they actually wanted. Just having an empire and ruling over it seemed like small things which they would never aspire for, but I still didn’t understand what it is they wanted, both from the world and each other. I don’t know much about Roman history and definitely very little about Caesar, but this book felt like I was getting a close look at the kind of relationship he shared with Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Mark’s analogous here is Anita whose presence is limited but very vivid and she turned out to be another enigma I wished to know more about.
It might feel like I’m rambling but I’m truly at a loss how to review this book. If you like Roman history as well as space operas, you’ll probably enjoy this book, and maybe even understand it to the fullest extent. If you like your sci-fi books to be a slow burn thesis about the philosophy of empire and religion, then this will be right up your alley. But if you are looking for lots of fast paced action and war, you’ll end up disappointed. I still can’t say if I love it completely but I was definitely impressed, and though this almost works as a standalone, I will surely read the sequel and would love to reread this book before that.
PS: Thank you Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me the advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.
Great review! Like you, I floundered a bit overall. I think there were more positives than negatives in the end, but I get why people struggle with this one!
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I know right.. we definitely need to be receptive to the style of the book to enjoy it… but I liked that it was so so different from every sci-fi we usually read..
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