A Noir-Tinted Space Opera: After the Crown by K.B. Wagers

After the Crown is the second book in K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy, following hard on the heels of Behind the Throne.

In Behind the Throne, Hail Bristol, a princess of the Indranan empire—one who’s lived her entire adult life under a different name as a gunrunner and a smuggler—reluctantly returned to her homeworld. She was given no choice: all the other direct heirs to the throne had died, either violently or suspiciously, and her estranged mother, the reigning empress, had fallen ill. By the time Behind the Throne ends, Hail has survived multiple assassination attempts and ascended to the throne, but her reign is hardly secure: not only do many see her as an unsuitable empress, but the Saxon rivals to the Indranan empire have launched a (deniable) attack on Indranan territory, including the shipyard where the Indranan empire is building its next-generation warships.

After the Crown starts with an execution and ends with a call to arms. In between, it contains political manoeuvring, explosions, a political summit on neutral ground, unexpected betrayals, attempted coups, fleeing for one’s life, and Hail reuniting with her gunrunner past and her gunrunner connections in order to preserve her imperial present. It’s a hell of a ride, and any summary of its events runs the risk of trailing into incoherence due to the SHEER NUMBER OF THINGS HAPPENING.

Fortunately, the narrative itself is far from incoherent. Hail’s first person voice reminds me of noir, and its wry, sarcastic, world-weary tone—occasionally interrupted by earnest shock at something else blowing up—carried me effortlessly along. Hail is an interesting protagonist, with the early training of royalty but the instincts and lifetime habits of a gunrunner, used to taking her own risks and risking her own life. The isolation her imperial position imposes is itself a source of conflict for her, as someone used to small teams and quick action, and her reactions are a frustration to her bodyguards, particularly the two with whom she’s developed the closest relationship, married men Emmory and Zin.

In some ways, this dynamic reminds me very much of the emperor Maia and his bodyguards in The Goblin Emperor. The Indranan War books may have many more explosions, but there exists as a central relationship the same intensely platonic loyalty between principal and bodyguards: a relationship mediated across a divide of power that places serious constraints on the behaviour of all parties, but one that is nonetheless undergirt by a core mutual sense of care and respect. It’s not a dynamic that often reaches the foreground in SFF, but when it does, it adds an interesting and complex layer to characters who live at the heart of power —

— At least, as in After the Crown‘s case, until unexpected developments send them into exile. A coup in the seat of her empire sends Hail back to her gunrunning contacts looking for allies, and in particular to her mentor/father-figure Hao. (I like the relationship Hail has with Hao: they can’t, quite, fall back into the roles they had before Hail was unmasked and returned home to ascend the throne, but they make a solid stab at ironing out something very similar.) The plans Hail hatches to win back the advantage see her playing to her strengths: mayhem, personal violence, dubious friends, and high-risk-high-reward scenarios. It makes her bodyguards very frustrated.

The atmosphere of After the Crown reminds me even more strongly of Star Wars (with extra matriarchy) than Behind the Throne did: the sweep of high politics meets and overlaps with a gritty criminal underworld full of dangerous scoundrels and dark knights, ruthless outcasts and perilous kingpins. And banter.

After the Crown has a pace best described as breakneck, and its interest in action and explosions sometimes diverts attention away from the—potentially fascinating—political manoeuvring surrounding the Empress of Indrana. But it has an exuberance, an utter delight in putting its space opera operatics right into your face that makes it just about entirely wonderful as an example of the genre: I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next.

After the Crown is available now from Orbit.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.


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