BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Roman Catholic Church and the Eiridani Caliphate race to claim a long-lost human colony world located near the star Xi Virginis.
PROS: A perfectly balanced combination of political intrigue, fast action and meticulous world building; a steady buildup of tension from start to finish.
CONS: Characters are more archetypal than they are real.
BOTTOM LINE: A splendidly constructed space opera.
Prophets by S. Andrew Swann is the first book in his new Apotheosis series. It takes place hundreds of years in the future, after the collapse of the human government known as the Confederacy. The Roman Catholic Church is a majority force in human space but a new faction, the Eridani Caliphate, is poised to overcome them. The discovery of a long-lost human colony planet around the star Xi Virginis, discovered via mysterious transmissions quoting the Book of Revelations, just might tip the scales in favor of the Caliphate. Thus the Vatican assigns Priest, Teacher, and ex-military man Father Francis Mallory to go deep undercover on a reconnaissance mission. Mallory poses as a mercenary and gets hired on a “scientific” mission to Xi Virginis that is really just a front for its mysterious leader: the long-lived, artificial intelligence named Tjaele Mosasa. Who will lay claim to this lost colony world around Xi Virginis? More importantly, what’s really happening there? Such questions are the thrust of Swann’s plot-driven book.
In Prophets, there’s a surprisingly balanced combination of political intrigue (subversive manipulations and deceptions from mysterious characters), fast action (shootouts, crash landings, and rescue attempts) and meticulous world building (alien cultures, shared minds, forbidden technologies, character and race histories, etc.). Swann’s straightforward delivery explains everything clearly and concisely, thus contributing to its steady buildup of tension from start to finish. The author populates his universe with both humans and aliens. And while the characterizations go a long way toward defining motives and mindsets, they do little to elicit sympathy — which is to say that the characters are more archetypical than they are real. But they serve their purpose.
The more interesting character elements revolve around the world building. Nickolai Rajasthan, for example, is a tiger-like being genetically engineered by humans. But humanity no longer needs its creations (which were created to fight wars) and so any technology that gives man God-like powers (like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence) are now forbidden. Thus Nickolai is an outcast, even on the outlaw planet Bakunin. Ironically, he sees humanity as the Fallen, yet works undercover for one of them (the mysterious Mr. Antonio). Mosasa himself is an AI in human form, a pseudo-Daneel-Olivaw who sees humanity as something to be manipulated. Mosasa was created by the Race, super-intelligent beings from the Confederacy days. That gives him two reasons to lay low – one for being an AI, one for being the creation of a human enemy – which explains why he poses as a human to pursue his plans.
One of the obvious main themes of the book is religion. The Roman Catholic Church is alive and well in this future. As might be guessed from the name of this series (Apotheosis), the book specifically deals with ascension to godhood, or at least the perceived ascension to god-like status by man and/or artificial intelligence. That translates to lots of plans and machinations that just raise the ante in this ultimately worthy space opera that never fails to involve the reader.
(Note: Prophets takes place in the same universe as the author’s Hostile Takeover and Moreau trilogies. While I didn’t feel lost for not having read those books, I did get the impression that I missed out on some really good stuff and that my enjoyment of Prophets would have been even more fulfilling if I had read it.)