It’s a bold idea for a debut novelist to choose the stories and legends of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar projected into a space opera. Bold, I think, because these were formidable people in life, and I’ve been disappointed too many times with thin fictional replicas of great historical figures. But Emery Robin’s The Stars Undying succeeds brilliantly in rendering interesting and complex characters for these difficult roles.
The Stars Undying begins with parallel escape and pursuit sequences by the two main characters, a would-be queen briefly leaving her planet to escape her throne-usurping sister and a powerful commander of an imperial army descending to it in search of an old foe. Altagracia Caviro Patramata (known as Gracia) flees from her twin sister, Arcelia, who has recently seized control of the Szayeti Empire by defying the traditional rituals. The queen’s enormous hologram hovers over all as Gracia flees to a satellite in a smuggler’s spaceship. Just at this time the great Matteus Ceirran, commander of the Ceian Empire, with his captain Ana arrives at the Szayeti city of Alectelo in pursuit of his former mentor Quinha, now on the run in a broken down space ship. And so we have the recast Cleopatra as the teenager seeking her rightful throne and Caesar with Mark Antony at his side pursuing the defeated Pompey to the shores of Egypt.
The fact that we already know the highlights and the ending of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra makes it possible for Robin to allude to the best known events while taking us deeply into the minds of its two main characters. The alternating chapters devoted to Gracia and Ceirran, both in the first person, elaborate the strikingly different worlds of the religiously observant Szayeti and the rigorously secular and power driven attitudes of the Ceian empire.
While there are space battles and bloody conflict, these are glancingly referred to as the focus remains on the relationships at the heart of the story and the parallel rise of Gracia and the deepening conspiracies surrounding Ceirran. More than once I was reminded of Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan novels. I think both writers are equally brilliant in examining the subtleties of imperial intrigue and the mental and moral acrobatics involved in the exercise of power.
The first meeting between Gracia and Ceirran is a stunning version of the familiar legend about Caesar’s introduction to Cleopatra as she gains entrance to his rooms wrapped in a carpet. As this scene unfolded, I was torn between disbelief and being swept away with the boldness and success of this teenage girl. Needless to say, she brings Ceirran over to her cause in spectacular fashion, and a brief civil war follows in which Arcelia is defeated. Gracia seizes the Pearl that is the emblem of her office. This is a kind of computer which attaches to the ruler’s head by a dozen fine golden wires linked to the brain and which stores the consciousness of Alekso Undying, the founder of this royal dynasty.
This 300-year dead conqueror can appear in hologram form only to the ruler of the Szayeti who wears the Pearl and offers advice as he sees fit. To the ordinary people, he is an immortal who speaks to his subjects through the medium of the contemporary king or queen. Alekso is an interesting character in his own right, and it becomes clear that his ruthlessness, which matched well with Arcelia’s temperament, was always filtered and restrained by Gracia’s father as well as by Gracia herself.
She has to learn quickly the business of ruling, restoring the damaged city after the brief civil war and dealing with confrontations between occupying Ceian soldiers and the local population. In one of these encounters, we see her through Ceirran’s eyes as she comforts and quiets an angry crowd after Ana, who symbolizes to the people an occupying army, has killed a Szayeti youth. As the secular Ceirran listens to her speak to the crowd, he hears her turn the harsh Szayeti language into song as she prays with them in a call and response prayer that moves the crowd to tears. He feels something “deeper than shame” as he observes this but shows little or nothing on the surface.
Later he disciplines Ana by sending her back to Ceiao to be his representative on the governing body, known as the Merchants Council. In his summary of all the actions she should take in his name, he reveals the extent of his enemies’ efforts to undermine his position. Nevertheless he feels he has time to take a tour of the islands of Szayeti with Gracia in his typical disdain for whatever plots may be brewing against him.That is a strain in his character that continues through the narrative, right up to his return to the city of Ceiao, his defiant pushing of the religiously observant Gracia on his scandalized compatriots, and the disaster that follows.
The character of Ana is sharply drawn, as we see her through the eyes of both Ceirran and Gracia. She is the unruly fighter, gambler and drunkard, beloved by the soldiers under her command, totally loyal to Ceirran and unnervingly deadly in battle. She has a few powerful encounters with Gracia that set the stage nicely for what will be, I sure hope, a second book recasting the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra.
Deception in the exercise of power is a key theme of the story, and we see Gracia become more and more adept at getting her way through disguising her real motivations to achieve an immediate aim. Perhaps the greatest lie is that Alekso Undying is a god preserved in the Pearl who guides each judgment of the Szayeti ruler. As Gracia learned from her father, the moody character stored in the Pearl is far too idiosyncratic to be trusted. Yet the idea of the ruler as oracle of the god is essential to the religion of the people, so every king and queen learns how to use this holographic presence of the dead conqueror to their best advantage.
In addition to the deep characterizations of the major figures of the story, Emery Robin excels in capturing the nuance of the fraught romantic relationship of Ceirran and Gracia. Each of them reflects on the balancing of personal attraction, serving their self-interests as political rulers and dancing around the boundaries of truth and deception that mark most of their own exchanges as well as dialogues with other characters.
In one scene narrated by Ceirran, Gracia offers to teach him to swim as they stand in shallow water. She toys with him a bit, saying that should he start to drown she does not have the training to save him. He says, as directly as he puts anything, that he trusts her. And then we have this interesting passage that captures for me the typical mix of masking and real emotion in Gracia’s behavior.
“I was not expecting what happened in her face then: the sweetness that passed over it, sudden and startled, all her habitual shrewdness vanishing as if cleared by the wind. After a moment she turned her face away, and when she looked back, her eyes were full of laughter again.”The Stars Undying, Kindle edition, location 3583
The Stars Undying is full of beautifully rendered moments like this one that make the story exceptionally rich and rewarding. There are dozens of scenes I come back to again and again. This may be a debut novel, but it is the work of an incredibly accomplished writer. I look forward to the hoped-for follow-up novel on the exploits of Ana and Gracia.
I want to thank Orbit and Net Galley for an advance review copy of The Stars Undying as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.