Behind The Throne by K B Wagers
Hail Bristol has made a name for herself in the galaxy for everything except what she was born to do: rule the Indranan Empire.
When she is dragged back to her home planet to take her rightful place as the only remaining heir, she finds that trading her ship for a palace is her most dangerous move yet.
There is a wonderful moment as a reviewer that I always enjoy when it happens. That split second when you’re a dozen or so pages into a debut author’s first novel and everything clicks. The joyous frisson when you just get it, and realise that the author’s work really resonates with you. I experienced that exact sensation after I started reading Behind The Throne by K B Wagers.
Hail has spent decades running away from the Indranan Empire. In that time she has shed the mantle of royal princess and has become almost the polar opposite – a hard talking no-nonsense gunrunner. When circumstance steps in and forces her to return home, her family and subjects are more than a little dismayed by her appearance and attitude. The stuffed shirts who run the empire on a day to day basis just don’t know what to make of Hail. She is unpredictable and unwilling to be controlled. Like a small island of chaos in a calm sea, Hail will do whatever she thinks is right and to hell with anyone else. Needless to say I warmed to her immediately. She may be a bit rough around the edges, but she is also hugely compassionate and courageous. Her loyalty may be hard to come by but once she is your friend, Hail would gladly die for you. It is interesting to watch how the inner turmoil in her character plays out throughout the novel. Initially she is horrified at the idea of returning home, but the more she embraces her responsibilities the more she realises how important her actions are. The choices she makes are determining the course of many planets. She’s lucky however, it turns out being a gunrunner is pretty good training for a role in this royal family.
The men and women tasked with keeping Hail alive are some of my favourite characters in the book. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of Hail’s sardonic swagger, but there is something special about her BodyGuards. Indranan society is a matriarchy and our erstwhile heroine makes the unusual decision of choosing a man to be her chief advisor. Emmory is the consummate professional. Trained as a Tracker, think special op badass, he inherits his role when Hail returns home. Just as well, as he may be the only person who can keep up with whirlwind that is Hail Bristol. Emmory’s partner, Zin, is just as skilled and will do whatever it takes to keep his charge alive. The dynamic between Emmory and Zin is great. Their skills complement one another, it feels almost like they are the flip sides of the same coin. The empress is also a real treat. There are, how shall I put it? issues between Hail and her mother. The back and forth snarking is great.
Wagers has created a genuinely intriguing political thriller that explores a whole host of topics. Everything from religion and social inequality, to the rise of imperialism and gender equality feature in this wonderfully labyrinthine narrative. The plots and counterplots Hail has to constantly deal with are all perfectly pitched. At first glance, the Indranan Empire may appear almost ideal but there is a rot eating away just beneath that civilised veneer of society. There are multiple factions who are trying to undermine the rule of Hail’s family and grab as much power as they can in the resulting vacuum. The further you read the more you notice the Empire is crumbling round about the Bristol family. Threats exist both internally and externally and it all falls to Hail to not only survive but to excel against her enemies.
The intergalactic diaspora that has led to humankind travelling to the stars has created a new slant on old problems. The gender bias that exists in Indranan culture allows Wagers to touch upon problems we face currently, but look at them in an entire different way. It is fascinating to see how different groups have their own take on solving the problem, everything from the potential of violent revolution to informed, intelligent debate. I was left in little doubt that Behind The Throne is a smart, insightful fiction that educates just as much as it entertains.
I didn’t know quite what to expect when I started reading this novel. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t read a whole lot of science fiction, and I’m always a little nervous with this particular genre. My fears were entirely unfounded in this instance. The first book of The Indranan War is a real page turner. Great characters, an absolutely riveting story and the promise of more still to come. You can’t hope for more than that. My advice, seek it out, read it and enjoy.
Behind The Throne is published by Orbit and is available now. A sequel, After the Throne, is due later in the year. I’m looking forward to it already.