PROS: Diverse and varied set of characters; well executed widescreen space opera epic; very strong treatment of Empires not seen in other works.
CONS: For all of its length, the novel is fraction of a larger work; unsatisfying conclusion; some world building aspects require a leap of faith.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting, if imperfect, turn into full length space opera.
A Prospect of War by Ian Sales occupies a place within the spectrum of new space opera shared by Ann Leckie, Peter F. Hamilton, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. It features an interstellar empire seething under the potential of imminent conflict, a renegade-but-loyal Admiral, a traitorous Duke, and a crew of agents with an unexpected asset in their midst. The space opera empire depicted here is relentlessly and ruthlessly feudal in nature. Nobles and serfs confront the problem of wide-scale feudalism as a viable political system for a high-tech society. It’s clear a lot of thought went into the setting, especially regarding the consequences of what a stratified society might be like. There are some nice little bonuses for the observant reader as well, such as the designs of the heraldic devices throughout.
For such a big novel there are a remarkably small number of protagonists and point-of-view characters. But they are a diverse lot, ranging from a Lieutenant-Commander Rizbeka demar Rinharte, aide and intelligence agent of a renegade Admiral (whose true identity beyond that title is a major reveal) to Inspector Finesz, who pursues a death and the mystery it engenders across solar systems, right into the plots of the Admiral, Beka, and everything else. There are a decent number of strong, well-written female characters as well. Ormuz sits in the Paul Atreides position in terms of his birthright and abilities as the “traditional” hero. But rather than focusing exclusively on him, the author takes a light touch, preferring to explore characters around him as much or more than dwelling in his head.
There is a leap of faith needed for the personal armament technology in the novel. Sword fighting is the highest art of personal combat in this universe. Swords are restricted to higher classes, while serfs are forbidden to carry blades. Although there are some excellent scenes of swordplay, there are no projectile weapons of any kind in the universe. There are no firearms, although there are bulky energy cannons that are not at all practical as sidearms. It seems as if firearms haven’t been invented in this universe, and it’s stranger still that slings, bows, or crossbows haven’t been invented, either.
That said, it does mean that violence and combat in the novel are extremely intimate. The novel makes it difficult for characters to die in random and impersonal ways, like via long distance blaster shots. The woundings and deaths in the novel are close range and personal, and when they happen to characters we like, it makes it even more poignant. But it does take cognitive dissonance to wonder why no one ever conceives of using anything else.
The rest of the presentation of the universe in the novel, however, is far more logical. For example, the economics of information transfer: information is the king in this universe and the transport, dissemination and use of information as a currency and weapon is something rarely seen in space opera. It’s explored and extrapolated in interesting ways. Shipping items from planet to planet is hard, and aside from low weight valuable and unusual items, simply not practical. This universe, then, has the transmission of information, be it information on growing crops, new designs for a television, or a new cocktail recipe. Buy low and sell high applies to information as well as anything else, and in a world where information has to be hand-carried across a galactic empire, one can make a killing with the right information.
The major problem with the novel is that 190,000 words after being immersed in this world to varying degrees, it ends with a unsatisfying conclusion. It’s clearly marked and marketed as the first in a series, and the conflict that the author is setting up involving galactic-empire-level stakes, is large enough to fills a huge series. However, what the author fails to do is to provide enough a satisfying climax to this volume.
While there is drama in the set up in the beginning, it wasn’t quite enough. The ending, rather than being a clear, dramatic point feels much more like a dividing line in the larger narrative, and without a sting in the end. The impetus for me as a reader to continue the series is somewhat muted given the strengths of the writing, the world building and the characters portrayed.