Friday, 25 April 2008

‘The Martian General’s Daughter’ – Theodore Judson (Pyr Books)

I’ve always done alright by Pyr books when looking for something to read. This time I was after something fairly short that would last me a couple of commutes and see me through to the weekend. Weighing in at a slender two hundred and fifty pages, ‘The Martian General’s Daughter’ was clearly a good choice. Not only that, it was a good read as well…
‘The Martian General’s Daughter’ is the story of a dying empire (very much like that of Ancient Rome) in an Earth two hundred years from now, it is also the story of an army sergeant who has risen to great prominence and (along with his illegitimate daughter) must run a gauntlet of murderous politics and insane emperors. Our former sergeant, now a general, is burdened by a sense of honour and obligation that marks him out as unique and perhaps the last of his kind in these troubled times.

'After I have killed the emperor', said Cleander, 'I will cut you open so we find the obligation in you. Once we have it, I promise you, old man, I will put it atop the broadcast tower in the Field of Diversions so that the curious may come from across the Empire to see what Pan-Polarian obligation used to look like.'

His daughter, Justa, is a little wiser in the ways of the world and guides her father to the story’s ultimate conclusion. It is also her voice that tells the tale.
I’m pretty good at suspending all belief, with speculative fiction, but for some reason I had real trouble getting my head around the fact that the events of the book take place only two hundred years from now. I could accept the nano-machine plague but not the shape that society would adopt in such a (relatively) short time from now. Can society change so much in that period of time? I’m not sure. While I could see the need for this in the story (basically a science fiction hybrid of ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Quo Vadis’) I wonder if the story would have benefited from a two thousand year gap instead of just two hundred…
Once I’d got round this though, I found myself really enjoying the story itself. The ‘ancient Roman’ influence is there for all to see (the culture and certain historical parallels) but Judson doesn’t let that stop him from embellishing the world with his own little touches that brought a smile to my face but didn’t detract from the tale itself. I’m thinking particularly of the worshippers of Elbis, ‘The Singer of Songs’. What is more engrossing though is the portrayal of General Peter Black, a character that’s not particularly likeable but who is so ‘out of place’ and na├»ve that you cannot help but feel sorry for him. His loyalty to the Empire is absolute, to the point where he will support an insane emperor out of the love he had for the Emperor’s father,

'We owe the dead as much as the living', said Father. 'Perhaps more. We are everything they have left.'

As a character study, ‘The Martian General’s Daughter’ is a compelling read that is slightly spoilt (funnily enough) by the voice of the narrator, Justa. Hers is a very dispassionate tone, possibly as a result of her upbringing, that doesn’t infuse the story with the kind of raw emotion that would hook a reader.
It’s a good job then that the ideas behind ‘The Martian General’s Daughter’ are plenty enough to maintain interest all by themselves. This isn’t just a tale of loyalty in a dying empire; it’s also full of the spectacle of gladiatorial games and pitched battle across continents, plenty enough to keep me going.
A tough book to get into but worth sticking with for the long run as it’s ultimately rewarding.

Seven and a Half out of Ten

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