Character-Driven Space Opera: There Before The Chaos by K.B. Wagers

I’ve been thinking about how to review There Before The Chaos for weeks. K.B. Wagers’ fourth novel, the opening volume of a second trilogy about gunrunner-turned-empress Hail Bristol (star of Behind the Throne, After the Crown, and Beyond the Empire), it turned out to be the kind of character-driven, deftly-wrought, emotive space opera that I adore. And that I find difficult to discuss with any kind of measured distance or attempt at assessment. Does it live up to its predecessors? Does it succeed at what it sets out to do?

I’m not entirely sure I can tell, because it succeeds so well at being exactly the kind of book I wanted it to be. (Though I shake my fist at the cliffhanger ending! What a hook.)

Hail has survived the events of the Indranan Empire trilogy to be—relatively—secure on her throne, with a named heir and a political establishment that’s fallen in line after Hail defeated both an external threat and a rebellion against her rule. But she’s dealing with a bad case of PTSD from being locked in a box and nearly drowning, and she feels extraordinarily protective towards the people whose job it is to protect her: her official BodyGuards are among some of her very few friends.

But Hail isn’t going to enjoy much of a respite. News reaches her of trouble with the Farians, long-term allies of Indrana. The Farians are a humanoid non-human race, the only non-human sentient race that humans have ever encountered, and they’ve been around for a very long time. They’ve been engaged in a sort of civil war for a very long time, too, a conflict that usually takes place in Farian territory, with a faction known as the Shen. But that conflict seems to be spreading outwards, into human space—and certain interests are doing their best to arrange things to draw the Indranans into the fighting.

And things have changed for the Farians, with the addition of a third faction led by the visionary Fasé—who was a key player in Hail keeping her throne and keeping some of the people she cared about alive. When Fasé arrives in the Indranan Empire and asks Hail for political asylum, Hail’s not going to turn her down. Especially when Fasé reveals that the Farians and the Shen are particularly interested in Indrana and in Hail personally due to an age-old religious prophecy. Although Hail knows that the Farians have abilities beyond what humans are capable of, she’s dubious about prophecy—but she trusts that the Farians believe it. (The Farians are a bit like space opera elves. They’re pretty cool.)

When it’s proposed that Hail chair a diplomatic forum on Earth at which the Farians, the Shen, and Fasé’s group can attempt to settle their differences, it seems like a reasonable option—though Hail’s suspicious of both the Farian government and the Shen leaders, and doubts that they’ll actually come to any sort of agreement.

In the event, it turns out her doubts are proved—violently—correct.

In the midst of dealing with politics and the safety and survival of her nation, Hail also has more personal concerns, including the loyalty of her oldest (and dearest) friend from her gunrunner days, the need to conceal her PTSD from the general public, and the constraints her position places on her friendship with her very protective BodyGuards, Emmory and his husband Zin.

Also, she may or may not be attracted to the sister of the Shen leader, which could prove an awkward complication.

Wagers writes compelling space opera action, full of character and incident. She has a very deft touch with action—which is good, because There Before The Chaos has a bunch of it—and a brutal sense for where to leave her start-of-trilogy cliffhanger. That ending! I want to know what happens next this instant. Waiting a whole year will be torment.

I really enjoyed There Before The Chaos. I enjoyed it even more than the last book by Wagers I read, Beyond the Empire. It’s doing similar things to the Indranan War trilogy, in its concern with both the political and the personal, but it’s taking a different emphasis, with more space dedicated to Hail’s development into a responsible empress.

I love it. Give me more.

There Before the Chaos is available from Orbit.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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