BRIEF SYNOPSIS: As seen through the eyes of three soldiers fighting for Imperial China, the Dragon Throne and the Mexic Dominion fight for control of the planet Fire Star.
PROS: Rich setting; fast-moving story; a fun, fun read.
CONS: Perhaps because the story went so fast, the portrayal of the ultimate transformation of the characters was undermined.
BOTTOM LINE: A non-stop story that thoroughly entertains
Chris Roberson’s Celestial Empire series continues to be a rich setting for telling enjoyable stories. In addition to numerous short fiction pieces (some of which are reviewed here), Roberson has written a few novels that highlight an important milestone of this intriguing alternate future history — a future in which Imperial China has become a superpower and wages war with their frequent enemy, the Mexic Dominion.
The latest book, Three Unbroken, details the fight to reclaim the planet Fire Star (Mars) as seen through the eyes of a trio of fighters for the Dragon Throne’s cause: Arati Amonkar, whose dream to fly drives her to become a pilot for the Interplanetary Fleet; Micah Carter, whose failure to pass the Imperial bureaucracy entrance exams leads him to serve in the Green Standard Army; and Niohuru, a privileged youth who eschews the repetitive boredom of everyday life for the glory of battle as part of the elite group of Imperial Bannermen.
In telling the story, Roberson’s approach employs several levels of logic. The book is subdivided into 64 short chapters (or Hexagrams) and for each subtitle utilizes some combination of Air, Water, Mountain, Earth, etc. – each one with an accompanying pearl of wisdom (many of which escaped my meager mental facilities). The story itself is structured by evenly alternating viewpoints of the three principle characters, whose paths only rarely cross. In the early parts of the book (training and the first operation), each character gets one chapter before the viewpoint changes. In the middle part of the book (the second operation), two consecutive chapters are used to convey a character’s viewpoint. Throughout the entire novel, each chapter progresses the individual story of the character and the overall story of the war. With all of this logical structure, one gets the impression that the author had this story completely mapped out from the start – prep work that gives the story a distinct beginning, middle and end.
This structure also suits Roberson’s storytelling which is told with an authoritative voice. That confident delivery makes you feel like you’re in capable hands. True to that delivery, the story never once falters. Each chapter takes the opportunity to either advance the plot (through discussion of military strategies), build the world (by revealing cultural differences and fictional history), flesh out characterization (via surrounding characters and subplots), or some compelling combination of all three.
Hardcore fans of military science fiction should know that the book does not dwell too long on detailed maneuvers and weaponry; such descriptions are present but more cursory. (It would also have been nice to see more of the war from the Mexic point of view, for example, but maybe that’s another book?) While this approach served to make the story move quickly, it somewhat undermined the depiction of the characters’ ultimate transformation from new recruit to battle-hardened veteran. There were traumatic experiences, to be sure, but it hardly felt significant to what I believe the author was shooting for. Otherwise, the author’s aim was dead-on in creating a swift moving read.
In short, much as he did with the excellent story The Dragon’s Nine Sons, Roberson has written a non-stop story that thoroughly entertains.