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In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, S. M. Stirling 16 October 2020

2008 science fiction, second of the two books of Lords of Creation. The first Mars and Venus landers found breathable air and human life. Forty years later, Jeremy Wainman is on an archaeological expedition looking for a lost Martian city.

The first volume, The Sky People, was spoiled for me by fitting some really interesting ideas into a boringly generic Stirling plot and characters. This one certainly isn't perfect, but it does a rather better job, particularly once we get past the self-indulgent introduction (in which a bunch of science fiction writers, referred to only by their first names which of course the True Fan will know, do things by which they can be recognised, in the context of watching the live feed from the first probe to land on Mars). If this:

"Lookatthat!" Larry cried joyfully.

causes you joy too, well, great. To me, I'm afraid, it smells of a cash-in, of a too-easy triggering of positive associations that this book hasn't earned.

All right, there are still standard Stirling problems, such as that there are only two real people here, our hero and the Martian princess, and I'm not at all sure about the hero for all he has most of the viewpoint time. But the good stuff starts almost at once: unlike the Venusians, these Martians aren't just generic "primitives", they're part of a tradition of continuous civilisation longer than Earth's (as we're often reminded), and they think differently from humans, reflected in everything from the shape of the civilisation (everyone trying to get things done employs Professional Practitioners of Coercive Violence, but those Coercives will change sides readily, if and only if their cause seems hopeless) to their uncompromisingly straightforward language.

"We might already be reveling in our seizure of a valuable ship and cargo, celebrating by absorbing costly essences and engaging in brutally nonconsensual erotic entertainments of a type I find deeply gratifying but which are difficult to arrange on a commercial basis."

There's also a thoroughly biological technology base, lower-energy than Earth's but more able to sustain itself in the absence of a manufacturing and support chain.

All right, the writing is also sloppy, with "nicating membranes" and

The hard and supernally strong stringers of the hull couldn't burn. They /had/ melted and slumped in grayish dribbles and pools against the black of the cabin armor as the blazing hydrogen overcame the fireproofing anticatalyst and blazed like a blast furnace; there had been better than twelve million square feet of it, after all. It must have been like a blast furnace.

(What was it like, then? Was it like a blast furnace? And would't that usually be cubic feet?)

and there are no particular answers to the big questions about what the Ancients (who seeded Mars and Venus with Earth-compatible life in the first place) were like. But the Martian princess actually gets to do things, to the point where it's the hero's job to sit and wait to be rescued for a while. (OK, this is pointed out explicitly for the hard of thinking, but it's still a good thing to have in the book.)

Definitely an improvement on the first book; and I think one could read it without having read The Sky People, since there's plenty of recapping of the important points.

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Previous in series: The Sky People | Series: Lords of Creation

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