A servant who kills,
Avenging the many dead;
Music is the key.
The generation starship Olympia is an enormous structure, with gardens, meeting areas, suites for families and individuals, and passageways that are either bright and spacious for public travel or dark and narrow for maintenance and secrecy. Oichi Angelis is a worm, a member of the Servitor class. Servitors are supposed to be like the Bunraku stage technicians of Old Earth: silent, unobtrusive, efficient, making life easy and pleasant for the Executive class and ruling families, of whom Oichi observes, “These people don’t just have power, they are power”. The two main clans are the Charmaynes, who control politics, and the Constantines, who enjoy a status based on their genetics. As far as phenomes go, nearly everyone of the starship shares similar appearances, so class divides are not based on race, nevertheless there are strongly maintained divides.
To become a Servitor, Oichi had to undergo significant modifications so that what she sees, what she hears, when she can speak, and even what her voice sounds like can all be controlled by Executives. But she has another modification, one her parents gave her in secret, that makes up for her compromised senses. Not only does her implant transmit a data base of humanity’s musical heritage and ramp up her intelligence, it creates an interface between Oichi and one of the Medusa units, the self-aware AIs designed to enhance human activities aboard a spaceship or operating in deep space. This link allows Oichi to override Executive directives and move throughout the maze of passageways without getting lost or detected.
Oichi sets out to spy on Executives and clans, in order to figure out the original mission of the ship and the inhabitants, and whether or not their mission has been compromised. It’s a high risk undertaking, since persons who displease members of the ruling clans have very short life spans. Gradually she amasses enough evidence to convince both her and her Medusa unit that things are seriously wrong. Then she begins to intervene: one assassination, on alliance, at a time. Oichi takes the long view and thinks before she acts, so she proceeds very carefully to put a halt to some of the worst behaviors by the worst offenders, usually making it look like they did it to themselves, or to each other.
Along the way she recruits others, sharing both the educational implant and the Medusa links. But another agent of change, or perhaps a rival alliance, is stirring the pot in startling ways, and more than once Oichi is outmaneuvered by a mysterious nemesis.
Emily Devenport is a magnificent craftswoman. Her plots have an architectural quality, and the internal consistency of her stories is as sound as it gets. What sets her apart from the herd, even more than her craftsmanship, is her original and complex character development, as well as the interactions between characters. She does not merely follow a meme to the predictable destination; she has better, and worse, possibilities in mind. Her characters may do or endure terrible things her SF frequently shares a border with horror, and the boundary gets crossed but the overarching, defining theme her of storytelling is the search for a better way to be.
One strong recommendation: any time a character (usually but not always Oichi) refers to a piece of music, listen to it. Seriously. They are all on YouTube, free and easy to find. It may be out-of-your-comfort-zone repertoire, but each one is SO worth the effort. Each composition is significant to the mood of the scene, each one is mind and soul expanding. I even listened to the music I already knew, because it was a revelation to hear it in the context of this story. Devenport’s selections are inspired. To associate a procession of Executives and their guests to Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway was absolutely brilliant!!!!!
And this brings us to the most extraordinary aspect of Devenport’s writing: she is all things to all readers. If you want a straightforward story, that’s what you’ll find. On the other hand, if you like complexity, mind puzzles and foreshadowing, there they are! If you love nuanced writing, you will be entranced by subtleties. If you appreciate good, old-fashioned hard SF, hers is solid, based on biology and imagined future tech, not hand waving. And nobody, but nooobody, can drop the other shoe like Emily Devenport.
This may prove to be one of the best books of 2018. ~~ Chris Wozney
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