Across the galaxy from Lost Earth, the youngest, dissolute and disreputable scion of the noble house that rules a stellar empire flees his responsibilities, his privileges and station on the eve of the ceremony marking his maturity. Little does the ne’er-do-well Brandon know, however, that at the same time, a plot decades in the making to topple that empire, kill him and his elder brothers, and capture his father is just about to unfold. His impulsive abandoning of his responsibilities may inadvertently save Brandon in the short run, but the Phoenix will soon discover that he is not only in flight, but the last hope for a fallen Empire.
And in the meantime, those who would seek to topple the Empire have agendas, dreams and goals of their own, often in sharp conflict and contrast with each other and with the overall mission. And then there are the Rifters, both those allied with the invaders and those who are only trying to survive and find a place for themselves, who are caught in the middle of a fulmination of violence and danger.
Such is the matter of Exordium: The Phoenix in Flight, a novel by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge. Many years out of print, it has recently returned in an ebook edition.
Exordium, both in subject matter, character development and to an extent its publication history reminds me strongly of another team of writers exploring space adventure and space opera, and often having publication issues of their own: Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe. While that universe mostly focuses on a single clan and those who become connected to that clan’s trials and travails, Exordium goes for a wide angle view of those descendants of Earth, that live in and around the Empire. We get third person points of view ranging from Brandon Arkad to one of the invader commanders trying to keep his place and his piece of the pie through skill and intrigue.
And then there are intriguing space battles with FTL speeds but speed-of-light communication. TOh, and Elder race technology, to boot. The book has fun working out the implications of a universe where ships can travel faster than transmitted information, reminiscent of, say, The Mote in God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle. There is unexpected comedy. Manners and ties of fealty and honor are explored. Even a few very strange aliens. And the types of human societies on display remind me of the work of Jack Vance.
So in addition to all of the above, the heart of this book are a set of interesting characters. Certainly, the underestimated Brandon is the lead character in the novels, but he’s not the only well drawn character and not even the most sympathetic character. Even some of the villains, such as Barrodagh, who is not a soul of honor, kindness or mercy himself, is sympathetic in that he is caught in a web of very dangerous and capricious people.
Female characters, especially given when the book was written, get a lot of attention and development. The book takes a bit to give us a major lasting female viewpoint character (I suspect if written today, this would have been changed) but considering that a distressing number of contemporary space opera novels are still lacking in this regard, I give Trowbridge and Smith lots of credit for their efforts.
As a big, wide scale space opera, and the beginning of a series, the novel does dump you into a world that a reader needs to work to piece together. There isn’t a lot of “As you know, Bob” infodumping, but a lot of terms and references come down on the reader, hard. There are some small subplots that seem to promise to flower in further books, including what appears to be a motif on Dune and the Butlerian Jihad.
So what didn’t work for me in Exordium? The usual bugbear for books like this is the only major flaw–its an incomplete story; the ending of this book is not really a stopping point so much as a pause. You really can’t “one and done” a series like this and the authors did not attempt to do so. I don’t know yet if this is really a single book cut into fifths, or if the appropriate metaphor is movements in a symphony.
And one more thing, a personal quirk. I do think that names with excessive apostrophes and odd punctuation is a bit overdone in this day and age.
Still, I waited too long to sink my teeth into this. Sometimes, only wide scale space opera will do, and this fit the bill perfectly.
The authors intend to publish all five volumes of the book in ebook. After reading this one, I fully intend to continue reading the series. And, I think, once you read this one, you will, too.