The time and place
The far future, on a world called Alsea.
The suspension of disbelief
Faster than light space travel exists across the galaxy, but Alsea doesn’t have it. Also, the Alseans have scientific and other capabilities that we do not today.
The quick summary
A space firefight happens above Alsea, a technologically advanced world without very fast spaceships and no proof there are aliens until some aliens crash down to the planet. The aliens, a humanoid and friendly bunch, inform Lancer Andira Tal (government head) that the less friendly aliens they fought in space want to come invade and enslave Alsea. With their ship beached, the aliens want to help Alsea as much as they can, but they are limited by the orders of their government. Tal must do whatever’s necessary and make uncomfortable choices to try to save her world. Will it be enough?
The Caphenon, titled for the crashed ship the friendly aliens were on, boasts tons of memorable and intriguing characters with complex interactions. Lancer Tal must bear the weight of society, marshal the world’s troops, and play politics at the same time, and those have shaped her into a fascinating woman, tough and empathetic. Her foil, Ekatya Serrado, has a similar personality and burden, but differing life circumstances and loyalties molded by her society’s customs. The most major non-main character (deuteragonist?), anthropologist Lhyn Rivers, is richly detailed: curious, loyal, brilliant, and drives the actions of many with her ingenuity and compassion.
The female characters in The Caphenon all take actions, take responsibility for their actions, and have all kinds of different jobs, capabilities, and personalities. You know, like people! That they are people is not a gimmick or remarked upon. This is what I look for in stories: fully realized characters of all shapes, sizes, genders, sexualities, and more.
Alsea is a fascinating world with a complicated society and history. The caste system makes meritocracy an even more problematic concept, with people of certain aptitudes (inborn) being shoehorned into the higher castes. Alsean society knows this is an issue but has not divested of it, and the tensions between the less prestigious castes and the warriors and scholars come up in several discussions.
Delancey explores an interesting concept I wish I saw in more military fiction: the soldiers die, but they have traditions and ceremony to commemorate that, and they’re trained for war. Civilians still have to cope with war and often bear the scars of conflict as well. In The Caphenon, some academics have to get into combat zones and do violent things unfamiliar to them, the trauma of which will follow them beyond the story.
The villainous aliens, the Voloth, are just villainous aliens. They believe they’re better than the Alseans, and the individual ones we get glimpses of are very simple in that. They aren’t named or physically described beyond having humanoid bodies, and they just seem to be evil because that’s their role. I find it a stretch to believe that such a huge army isn’t at all conflicted about what they’re doing in the least with their truly horrifying tactics. I prefer when I get a little more insight into the villains’ more human motivations and when they are presented in a morally gray manner.
Both Tal and Serrado are presented with some awful choices. They are prepared to go through with horrible things for decent reasons and self-flagellate indefinitely for them, but the story doesn’t pull those triggers. They don’t end up doing or having to do anything truly problematic, and having been led through some of those struggles and then finding no questionable means were required for the ends felt a bit of a letdown for me. There are characters who have to do problematic things for survival, but the moral choices of the main characters end up with their hands pretty clean when I thought dirtiness would have been interesting.
My other comments
I usually review SFR, which this isn’t, although there are some romantic elements. There is a f/f couple early in their relationship, and they have to navigate some perils. They have sex, and it is fade-to-black.
This is space opera. It’s big. We get explanations of matter printers, religious myths, and military funerals. Cultural exchange takes many pages, and the reader will need to have some patience for that. There are dozens of side characters, which can be difficult to keep track of. Several of them are named and die in the same scene. Almost all of the conflict is large scale. Even the personal matters mostly come up because of world conflict, not budgeting badly for the month or keeping residence poorly.
Read if you
- Enjoy Star Trek and first contact stories
- Want to hear about competent female characters in many walks of life
- Can sit back for an epic yarn
Skip if you
- Aren’t a space opera fan
- Don’t care about the cultural or broad technical details of different societies
- Require morally ambiguous villains
Disclosure and final thoughts
I received a free copy for review purposes. This book is available at my local library, and may be at yours too. It’s a finalist for a Lambda award (LGBT SF/F/Horror) to be finally judged in June. Thank you to Gill McKnight to introducing me! Tal’s adventures continue in more books (The Chronicles of Alsea).
Series site with plenty of world info: Chronicles of Alsea