A Detective Novel Trapped in a Space Opera: Undercity by Catharine Asaro

Catharine Asaro is a science fiction writer best known for her Skolian Empire series, a loosely-connected set of books that mixed space opera and romance before SFF Romance became a subgenre in its own right. In Undercity, she returns to the Skolian Empire universe, to a new set of characters and a fresh set of circumstances.

Major Bhaajan used to be a Skolian military officer with the Imperial Space Command. Retired from active service, she’s become a private investigator, a fairly good one. When a mysterious client offers a lot of money for her services, she finds herself returning to Raylicon, the planet of her birth, where a cloistered young man of extremely good family has gone missing. The Majdas are the second most influential family in the empire, even though the empire’s ostensibly democratically ruled, and they’re old-fashioned to boot: they keep their men in seclusion, in the tradition of old Skolian matriarchy. The young man who’s just disappeared from their carefully-guarded household was in line to marry a member of the most influential family in the empire, and the Majdas are understandably eager to get him safely back home.

(Fans of previous Skolian Empire books will be interested to learn that Undercity takes place roughly contemporaneously with the beginning of Skyfall: this particular young Majda is the lad Roca Skolia was supposed to end up marrying before the events of that book intervened.)

In order to find him, Bhaajan has to return to the undercity, an extensive underground warren beneath Raylicon’s City of Cries—a place whose residents have been alternately overlooked, misunderstood, and despised by the residents of the city above. Bhaajan grew up here, has connections here—mostly on the wrong side of the law. The undercity has its own history and its own culture, and Bhaajan increasingly finds herself torn between her youthful determination to leave it behind and an adult sympathy for its inhabitants and frustration with the Majdas’ failure to understand that the people of the undercity have different needs and expectations than the people who live in the city above them. Retrieving the lost Majda son isn’t the limit of Bhaajan’s involvement: there are missing weapons, dangerous new drugs, and the possible involvement of the Skolian Empire’s avowed enemies, the Eubians.

Bhaajan’s an engaging character in an engaging setting, and the novel plays an interesting bait-and-switch with its narratives: what begins as an apparently straightforward detective story becomes something more in the vein of planetary opera. But Undercity gets off to a rocky start. Its first chapter is perhaps its worst, with unnecessary mystery and a heavy-handed approach to setting the scene. Although it settles down and rapidly improves, it never quite loses its unsubtle exposition, and the prose never rises above a brisk workpersonlike competence.

I’m not sure how well Undercity stands up divorced from the context of Asaro’s other Skolian Empire novels. The presence of telepathy is mentioned, as is the fact that telepaths are pretty valuable to the Skolians, but in the text as it stands here, it’s not clear how this is important and why we should pay attention. The narrative’s best moments focus on Bhaajan and her conflicted relationship with her past and the people in it, although there is action and derring-do, not just introspection.

I have difficulty finding anything profound to say about Undercity. It’s a diverting novel, and I enjoyed it, but in many ways it’s a completely unremarkable book. Comfortable and a little fuzzy around the edges, but not the kind of thing to spark a strong emotional or intellectual response.

At least from me. Perhaps other people will have a different reaction.

Undercity is available December 2nd from Baen.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.


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