Carnelians by Catherine Asaro – space opera with more opera than space

Carnelians by Catherine Asaro

It's gift-giving season again. The time of year when you want to buy really good things to people you love, and you realize again that you don't really understand their taste in books.

People tend to enjoy different aspects of literature. They talk about things like whether the emphasis is on plot or on character development or on ideas. Some read only stories with supernatural elements of some kind, others hate and avoid everything like that. Sometimes I try to understand what makes someone like a book and I just cannot understand it. You know what I'm talking about. I've been thinking about this a lot; in the end I usually end up making Christmas presents of books I would like to read myself, or just give something mundane like socks.

As a reviewer I cannot give you socks. I'm supposed to tell you, many of you complete strangers (and I don't know the size of your feet anyway), if you would like to read this book or not -- a book that I wasn't able to really enjoy myself.

There are people who love Louis McMaster Bujold and her Miles Vorkosigan books, and I suspect that it's the same kind of readers who like Catherine Asaro. This is just a guess, because I haven't actually read anything by Bujold (yet) for exactly the same reasons that I haven't read Asaro until now: there is nothing in the description of these books that tickles my imagination, the promise of romance puts me off since I'm rarely interested in love stories per se, and it seems complicated to start reading an author who writes so many books set in the same universe and connected into some larger narrative.

The saga of the Skolian empire is not really a series, but a number of books set in a common future history. There was actually no problem to start with the latest book, and follow the story. Of course there were some massive infodumps in the early part of the book to bring the readers into the larger story and explain who everyone is and wants. This definitely slows down the reading, but I never had any problems following the story or even understanding what kind of relationship all of the characters have to each other.

At the beginning of Carnelians we are thrown into a situation of precarious peace between interstellar empires. The situation gets more tense when the brother of the Skolian leader, who is also a rock singer, apparently transmits a very angry song called "Carnelians Finale" (which for political reasons has been forbidden) to the whole universe. This book is actually sort of a sequel to one called Diamond Star, where this rock singer prince, Del, is the protagonist. A fun detail is that Catherine Asaro actually collaborated with a band (Point Valid) to create a sound track for the book, where also "Carnelians Finale" is included.

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When this song has been released through the information networks (the "Kyle mesh"), and some assassination attempts have been thwarted, the leaders have to somehow avoid a devastating war. Do you enjoy books with complicated intrigues and political maneuvering? People talk a lot, trying to convince each other to do things, sometimes for other reasons than they state openly. There is power struggle, and everyone is trying to guess the other important people's hidden motives. I tend to be bored by this kind of plot, and it's no more entertaining this time. There aren't even any interesting ideological points to ponder, just one civilization which is much more decadent and cruel and one which consists of telepaths ("psions").

Asaro's books are sometimes described as a mix of hard SF and romance. There is a indeed love story in Carnelians, involving the runaway girl Aliana who also was only character I found interesting. Hard SF, on the other hand, is not how I would describe this work. Of course there are all kinds of advanced technology (nanorobots, semi-sentient neurological implants, smart furniture, rotating space habitats, and so on) but scientific extrapolation is not the point, it's just for local colour.

So you see that this space opera is much more about the opera than about space. Especially since space is not really a factor in the story. Faster than light travel seems to be commonplace, and I actually get no real feeling of physical separation between the star systems. The inhabited universe is also interconnected by the Kyle mesh, a kind of internet with instant communication enabled by telepaths (I think, I actually didn't really understand this).

The part I liked the best is actually the (still kind of cheesy and predictable) subplot about Aliana, the sullen girl on the run from an abusive stepfather who meets a slave boy who has been thrown out with the houshold trash. I guess I find it easier to relate to the street perspective than to what goes on in the court of the emperor.

So, is Carnelians better than a random pair of socks?

If you are like me, this might not be the book for you. If you are mostly interested in relationships and political plots with a bit of adventure thrown in, then maybe this is nice Christmas reading. I can't tell you how it compares to Asaro's earlier work, but the themes are what I expected.

If you have read a lot by Catherine Asaro, let me know what you liked! Maybe I can become a better judge of books I don't like myself.