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The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro
(Tor, $26.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-86714-X
****
The only author I know who features powerful romance side by side with hard science has delivered a fourth engrossing volume in the Saga of the Skolian Empire. In The Radiant Seas, by Catherine Asaro, the members of the Ruby Dynasty lead the Skolian Empire in a fight for their very survival against the crushing force of the Trader Empire. This action-packed novel is chock full of love, valor, and sacrifice in the face of a ruthless enemy. If you're in the mood for rousing adventure, glittering (sometimes literally!) larger than life characters, gripping human drama, and a plot that holds surprises right up to the end, The Radiant Seas is for you.

The 17-year-long Radiance War is sparked by the apparent deaths of Soz Valdoria and Jaibriol Qox, the respective heirs to the enemy Skolian and Trader Empires. What neither side realizes is that Soz and Jaibriol have faked their deaths. Despite their people being mortal enemies, Soz and Jaibriol experienced a powerfully undeniable psychic connection. Driven by their genetically-based psionic abilities, they fell irresistibly in lust and love. To shelter this forbidden love, the couple secretly exiled themselves on a newly discovered planet. [See Primary Inversion] Now they've set out to explore their world while nurturing both their new-found love and their precious family to come.

Meanwhile, the grieving families of Soz and Jaibriol declare war. On the Trader side, Emperor Ur Qox seeks revenge for the capture and murder of his son, Jaibriol. On the Skolian side, the imposing metallic-golden tyrant, Imperator Kurj, Soz's older brother, must mobilize to fight the sadistic Traders. Ultimately, the territory to be defended or won isn't land, but control of the world-linking psiberweb thus far controlled by the psionic power of Soz's family. As the years take lives on both sides of the war, secrets start unraveling, and the lovers' idyll is violated. Both are drawn back into conflict in order to save everything that's important to them.

As it happens, this unfolding of Soz and Jaibriol's story was of most interest to me. But it's only a part of the abundance of human drama to be found in The Radiant Seas. We meet Kurj, a ruler haunted by the events that shaped his youth; and Kurj's brother, Althor, who also happens to be a haplessly adorable father; Ur Qox, the Emperor with a shocking secret agenda; Viquara, his marginalized but ambitious Empress; and Cirrus, a pleasure slave with remarkable bravery in her situation. If Asaro didn't make these people and their stories so interesting, you'd see me grumbling more about the lack of a single character arching more dominantly over the whole book.

I mentioned that she features a large dose of science in this novel too, right? Well, the ideas are downright fascinating (although I could live without their extensive details). Sometimes I was left feeling as though I had taken a wrong turn into a science textbook. If this helps an otherwise unabashedly space-opera novel be received more favorably within its genre, though, then more power to the author.

At least once in the story, I blinked and missed the passage of two years. I suppose it's tough to pack 17 years into one novel, but some of the transitions in the story were very abrupt. It's difficult to invest in characters when they're shown so briefly and so episodically. But The Radiant Seas just kept improving as it reached its climax. In fact, the emotional and surprising last two chapters lifted the whole book up a notch for me and left me yearning for the next book in the series. In the end, I believe I'll prize The Radiant Seas more for its place in relation to the rest of the Saga of the Skolian Empire rather than on its own merits.

--Preeti Singh


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