PROS: Engaging protagonist; strong moral foundation; appealing and entertaining writing; strong themes.
CONS: Irksomely inconsistent worldbuilding; too much “Carrying the idiot ball” by some characters.
VERDICT: A debut novel whose promise and ability to entertain rises above its flaws.
Davi has had a good life. Son of the Princess Miri? Check. Heir to Xalivar, the leader of the Borali Alliance? Check. An excellent student and pilot, with lifelong friends? Check, check and check. Who could want for more? But when circumstances assign him to a post on the conquered planet of Vertullis, and he discovers his secret origins among the enslaved Vertullians, Davi’s role as heir to Xalivar is going to give way to a new role and a new goal to free the slaves: The Worker Prince.
The Worker Prince is the debut novel from Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Bryan is far more well known for being well connected in the online genre community, with his blog, and his weekly #sffwrtcht twitter chats with writers and other genre professionals. Anyone who attends his chats or reads his blog will understand his deep and abiding interest in the craft of writing, the importance of moral, bright fiction, and religion. In The Worker Prince, the author brings those strengths to life. Explicit evocations of Superman, Star Wars and most importantly the Biblical story of Moses strongly resonate throughout the novel. The novel is not a pastiche of any of the above, but could be summarized as a “Science fantasy retelling of the Story of Moses in a Star Wars-esque universe”.
So what works? Characters come first. We have in Davi an appealing protagonist who has not had for want of anything. His story arc, from his origins to the decision that changes his life forever are organic and feel completely in keeping with the character. The scenes where he is the viewpoint character are far and away the best in the novel. He doesn’t slip over the line into implausible perfection, and his mistakes come at a cost. The relationships he forges throughout the novel reflect well on Davi, and on the other character as well.
In keeping with that, and with Schmidt’s interest in black and white characters rather than muddled palettes of grey, you might expect that Xalivar, the antagonist, to be an unalloyed villain, and he is. Aside from some early “stern scary uncle” bits between Xalivar and Davi, Xalivar’s role as the Black Hat is relatively uncomplicated. The novel portrays him as an outright villain, and in true villain fashion, Xalivar chews the scenery with gusto. The other characters work as well. I found that Xalivar’s ‘Dragon’ to be a relatively underdeveloped character that could have been better fleshed out, but Davi’s friends, his mother, and the workers are all well done. Davi’s slowly developing relationships with his real worker family, and the tumultuous relationship with his eventual love interest are real highlights of the book.
While the novel is itself original, there are plenty of well-done homages and references that an alert reader will pick up on, from Superman to Return of the Jedi. Additioanlly, the writing is strong and clear and written in a family-friendly manner. The term family-friendly is not meant as a slant or a slight. The Worker Prince is written in such a way that a parent could read the book to her children and, given the strong moral message and themes, I can definitely see some parents doing just that. It’s also entertaining to read. The book continues to run along, keeping us engaged through the plot. An example:
They waited what seemed like hours, but when the shuttle arrived, Davi looked at his chrono—ninety minutes had passed. When the shuttle door slid open, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Tela stepped out onto the ramp and smiled at them.
She’s a pilot? She’d handled the shuttle with smooth ease. There was a stirring in his stomach. I have to get to know this girl!
The shuttle was an older model Davi hadn’t seen in years. It had a gray exterior, instead of the white of recent models. Its interior had the four rows of chairs and harnesses in the passenger cabin and two in the cockpit facing the blast shield and controls.
Tela flew them to the far side of Vertullis over thick and undeveloped forest. It appeared that both the Vertullians and the Alliances kept busy enough with the existing agricultural and urban areas. The forest appeared mostly undisturbed. Tall cedars stretched around them as far as the eye could see. Wood had low value in the system—used mostly for making old-style furniture. Still, when Tela swung the shuttle in amongst them for a landing, it surprised him. Even more so when a portion of a rock wall opened to reveal a large hangar, into which they dove to land.
Stepping off the shuttle, Davi stopped and stared at what lay before him—a genuine Vertullian underground military base. Shuttles and a few Skitters were scattered all around amidst the tool kits, instruments and personnel needed to keep them operational. Mech-bots of various colors and sizes rolled around performing tasks from delivering supplies to starcraft maintenance. Everyone went about their business with a precision and seriousness rivaling any post in the Borali Alliance. He had never imagined such a place could exist. As he took it all in, Tela turned to the group and smiled.
“Welcome to the Workers Freedom Resistance,” Tela said.
“I had no idea you could fly,” Davi said, smiling.
“Why? Women aren’t up to the challenge?” Tela snapped.
“That’s not what I meant at all—”
“You fighter jocks are all the same!” Irritated, Tela turned before he could say another word and headed off toward a group of mechanics working nearby. Heat rose inside him. Women had affected him before, but not like this.
Themes are another highlight of the novel. Oppression, truth, belief, sacrifice, and the role and place of family run like veins of gold through the novel. Xalivar, for all of his villainy mentioned above, is somewhat humanized because it becomes clear that his goal is to keep the Borali Alliance strong not only for him, but to leave as a legacy for his heir. The workers, too, have their own issues and challenges with the role and nature of family, especially in light of the challenges and dangers in plotting a revolution. The social consequences and conflicts that run through the book are meaty and thought-provoking.
For all of its strengths, there are clear signs that The Worker Prince is a first novel, signs that sometimes threatened my overall enjoyment of the book. Readers familiar with my reviews know that worldbuilding is extremely important to me. The worldbuilding of the The Worker Prince, unfortunately, is inconsistent, to the point that it bothered me again and again. I think I get the parallels that the novel presents, in that the Legallians (“legal”) are stand-ins for a late Roman Republic, and the Vertullians (“truth”) are explicitly Christians oppressed in a very Exodus-era Jews-in-Egypt manner. But the way that the novel sets up the solar system and these peoples where the action takes place just didn’t work. It’s explicitly set in our world, with references to colonists from Earth. Therein lies the problem; it’s not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
The Vertullians are clearly descendants from Protestant Christianity and Evangelical Christianity to be specific. But where do the Legallians come from, then? Their religion is a very watered down and formalistic polytheism in which the population has no engagement or real investment. While the development of new religions in modern history is not something impossible (c.f. Cao Dai), I had trouble trying to figure out where the Legallians religion originated. I think the novel would have been better if the novel had to be set in a future of Earth, if the Legallians were either irreligious or were based on a identifiable descendant religion from Earth. Kameron Hurley and the team of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, for example, clearly gets this right. There are also other dead-end worldbuilding bits that seem to only give a pale Mos Eisley Cantina sort of feel to aspects the book. The orange skinned Tertullians, for example, come to mind.
Since the novel is Star Wars-esque science fantasy, I can and do glide over the physics of the universe. Unless I am trying to read Greg Egan or some of the other real hard SF writers, I can forgive fighter-pilot physics for spacecraft and other inconsistencies. I’m not reading the The Worker Prince for a lesson on celestial mechanics.
The other weakness I found in The Worker Prince is the Idiot Ball. A fair chunk of the setup relies on an intelligent, crafty and paranoid leader of the Borali Alliance being extremely stupid about Davi’s origins. Worse, part of the plot and the arc of the novel depend on a rumor about Davi’s origins, a rumor that happens to be true. I can’t believe that the antagonist would be so stupid for so long as to not have long since investigated any such rumors, especially since Davi is the de-facto heir to Xalivar. Xalivar and the novel seem completely blind as to where they think Davi came from. Davi’s mother, too, has a strong helping of the Idiot Ball, allowing some basic stupidity on her part to help ensure that Davi learns of his true nature and origins, when she does clearly recognize the danger at one point. The counterargument to the Idiot Ball, given the explicit Christianity and Christian themes of the novel is that it was fate and ordained by God that Davi would learn of his origins and come to learn of the plight of his real people. There is an undercurrent implication that this may be true. I can buy that, but I wish the novel had not been so ham fisted in doing it.
Perhaps the reason why I am hard on the flaws of The Worker Prince is my desire to have wanted to like the book even more than I did. I highly respect the writer’s intentions and goals here, intentions that he has made no bones about in interviews and in conversation. This is a first novel from the author, and that greenness is something to keep in mind if you, too, should desire to dip into the world of The Worker Prince.