A long time ago, I asked readers on my Livejournal for recommendations of books with aliens and spaceships. I was already reading everything people recommended, except for Julie Czernada and R. M. Meluch. I had read some Meluch—I’d read Jerusalem Fire back in the eighties and thought it was promising. I’d lost track of her since, but I started to keep an eye out for the Merrimack books. They were hard to find. They’re not in the library. The first one, The Myriad, has never ever been in stock in Chapters/Indigo in Montreal. If I know I want something I’ll buy it online, but this stayed on my vague pick-it-up-sometime list for the last five years. I finally picked it up at Powell's in Portland this past January, probably the best bookstore I have ever been in. I read it on the train, and I bought all the others and read them all in a matter of weeks. I’ve just re-read them.
There are a number of things about them that are absolutely wonderful. There are also other things about them that are just cringe-inducingly terrible. I can’t think of anything else offhand that needs me to forgive so much but which remains worth it.
No spoilers yet.
To start with, there are Romans in space. And there are American marines in space. And in a logical universe they’d be fighting each other, but in the universe they find themselves in they are allied against amazingly horrific FTL tentacled aliens. Now, if that doesn’t already have you sitting up straighter in your chair, these books are probably not for you. But there’s also an awesome narrative element in play in these books, which is what makes me really like them.
You know why there are Romans in space, in our future? It’s because the Roman Empire never died, it just became a huge underground conspiracy, running the world in secret until there was a suitable terraformed planet, whereupon they grabbed it and sent out the call and lots of doctors and lawyers and classics majors up and left Earth to head for Nova Roma to re-found the empire. (The only reason I know that this conspiracy doesn’t really exist is that if it did, I would be in it. See you on Palatine!)
Meluch likes her Romans less than I do, which means that my sympathy is sometimes in the wrong place. And she has them reinstitute slavery and gladiatorial games, which is extremely unlikely as well as unpleasant. But still, I’ll put up with a lot for Romans in space.
The aliens are good, too. The Hive are genuinely incomprehensible aliens and they are well thought through and work. As alien menaces go, they’re an impressive one. They’re not just an excuse for having swords on starships, cool as swords on starships might be. There are other aliens too, some just mentioned and some seen, and they help to make the universe feel like a fun future.
This is military SF, and all her American military characters are out of the stock box—John Farragut, the commander who’s so sincere and such a real man that he can actually express his emotions; Kerry Blue, the female marine who Helen Wright summarized on a Farthing Party panel on these books as “a tart with a heart”; Steele, the marine leader who secretly loves her; Callista Carmel, the lieutenant whose fatal flaw is that she’s too beautiful; Glenn “Hamster” Hamilton, the other lieutenant who the captain pretends he doesn’t love... They’re just paper thin sketch outlines of characters, and that’s fine, because look, an alien swarm! The plot always moves fast and there are aliens to kill. But there’s also a Roman character, Augustus, who is a patterner, and who is sarcastic and clever and just wonderful. Augustus is the one who I’d be reading the books for. He’s not black and white and two-dimensional, and the other characters really are.
If it wasn’t for the amazing narrative element that makes these books awesome, what I’d say about them is that they are fun military adventure SF with Romans in space. They’re readable and fast moving and keep drawing you onwards; they have lots of plot and just enough character to pull you through.
And then I’d talk about the awful things—the archetype/cliché characters and the really iffy gender stuff. A friend of mine stopped reading The Myriad after a line describing Kerry Blue as being so easy it wasn’t possible to rape her because she didn’t know the word no—I could get past that because it was a character saying it and not the authorial voice, but really that’s just not acceptable. They also have caricature politics. I groan every time the “League of Earth Nations” is mentioned. There are other problematic things about them too—I may find the idea of a future American selling himself into slavery in the Roman Empire so he can have education and healthcare perfectly plausible, but did that character have to be black?
So what I would do is give a qualified recommendation—they're not good books but they’re good enough for the kind of day where what you want to do is lop the tentacles off everything in sight with a sword while standing on the outer hull of a spaceship. Don’t tell me everyone doesn’t have days like that.
So I was reading The Myriad and taking it on those terms, and then about eighty percent of the way through the book it takes an abrupt left turn into being brilliant.
Real book-destroying spoilers! But it is nevertheless these spoilers for which I commend these books to your attention.
There are some people, aliens actually, who very early on in the history of the universe colonized a planet via a wormhole. They plan to send a message back through the wormhole that could change all the subsequent history of the universe, so our intrepid heroes try to stop them. It’s the last minute and it’s a race to the wormhole and... they don’t. And the entire history of the universe gets changed! Only the characters don’t realise it, because for them it has always been that way. This section of the book is called “a logical universe” and in a logical universe the Romans and Americans would be at war, and so they are. Augustus isn’t with them on the bridge. A CIA political officer is there instead.
For all of the books from that point on, Meluch gets to play with an extra layer of irony, foreshadowing and things that the reader knows that the characters do not. The whole end of The Myriad had me bouncing up and down with excitement, as well as saying “Can you do that?” I was reading Wolf Star on the bus, and it kept making me smile with all of the double-layer narratives it was expressing and I kept reading and grinning more and more widely. A stranger said “Good book?” and I realised that I couldn’t possibly explain what it was that was making me so happy, because for somebody reading Wolf Star alone it would just be a fairly usual kind of MilSF novel. It was my shadow knowledge that was making me smile. I think this is marvelous, and I can’t think of anything else like it.
On a panel regarding these books, Alec Austin suggested that this “hard reset on the universe” is something that’s much more common in visual media, and that it seems cooler to me than it would to most people because I don’t enjoy visual media, and that TV and comics do this often. This may well the case. And I don’t want lots of books to do this, because it would get tired pretty quickly. But I love it here, because it lifts these books into a whole other level of enjoyment as the tensions play out against each other. She keeps some threads in play longer than others, and by the end of Strength and Honor they are pretty much all resolved.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.