REVIEW SUMMARY: A well-crafted blend of world-building, characterization and storytelling.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Nine disgraced military rejects are assigned a suicide mission to destroy an enemy base located inside an asteroid.
PROS: Interesting setting; consistently high level of drama; believable action; well-crafted, layered storytelling; absolutely no padding.
CONS: None that I can think of.
BOTTOM LINE: Believable, lean-and-mean, military sf that offers dramatic tension every chance it gets.
Chris Roberson describes his book The Dragon’s Nine Sons as “The Dirty Dozen in space”. No other definition could encapsulate the plot better, but I will expand on that a bit: A band of nine disgraced and criminal military types of the Celestial Empire are assigned to a suicide mission to destroy an enemy asteroid base. They undergo training and use a stolen enemy ship, the Dragon, to accomplish their mission objective. When they arrive at the asteroid, Xolotl, they discover a previously unknown secret that forces them to question their orders, or at least examine the mission parameters.
Before you dismiss the story as having a formulaic plot, know that the book is no less enjoyable for using it. (In much the same way that The Stars My Destination was no less enjoyable for being “The Count of Monte Cristo in space”.) The story succeeds in being exactly what it tries to be and does so in a completely entertaining fashion. Roberson’s straightforward storytelling style expertly layers well-thought-out world building, dramatic characterizations, and a consistently-paced, no-nonsense plot delivery thankfully devoid of unnecessary padding. In fact, every single chapter contributes to world-building, plot and characterizations – a testament to the author’s meticulous craftsmanship.
The story is set in Roberson’s very intriguing Celestial Empire world, an alternate history in which Imperial China and Mexica have become the dominant superpowers. They have taken their war into space, with much of the conflict revolving around the Fire Planet (Mars) and its colonization and ownership. What’s interesting about this alternate history is not only the cultural contrast between the two cultures (the traditionalist Imperial China versus a Mexica whose religion is based on human sacrifice – a source of several chilling moments) but also that both civilizations, despite their ability to travel through space, have relatively low tech cultures. There are no supercomputers and artificial intelligences, no transhumans and whatnot. (Dare I call it “Mundane”?) What they do have are computations based on the abacus and weapons like rifles, bladed clubs and liquid magnesium throwers. This is appealing in the same way Steampunk is appealing.
For all of the book’s military posturing, it should be noted that this is not the kind of military sf with a slam-bang series of one unbelievable, action-packed sequence after another; although, yes, there are a nice handful of well-placed, nail-biting action scenes, too. Instead, the story focuses on the realistic military strategy aspect of the mission and, to a much larger degree, the characters. Each character is ultimately described with a brief history of who they are and how they got assigned to this suicide mission. These distinct back stories not only flesh out the characters (archetypical though some of them may be), but they also add to the dramatic tension, which is another major appeal of the book. There is conflict at nearly every turn: in the command structure of the mission, in the contention between the characters during training, in the realization of Mexica’s “barbaric” rituals, in their personal dramas (current and past), and, of course, in the execution of the mission itself which is an exciting combination of Western and War movie.
In reading The Dragon’s Nine Sons, it’s obvious that much time was spent researching history (for the portrayal of the two cultures) and astrophysics (for the orbital dynamics of the asteroid and pace travel sequences). But even more time was spent constructing a believable, lean-and-mean military sf story that offers dramatic tension every chance it gets.
See also: Chris Roberson’s checklist of Celestial Empire stories.