"Spoken like a consummate politician, Highness. One would think you've been doing this for years."
"I have, Caspel. It just involved more guns."
Behind the Throne
by K. B. Wagers
Whatever your expectations may be, I suspect Behind the Throne will probably defy them. When I first started reading, misled by the flowery descriptions of eye colors and muscle definition, the careful note of each time the characters touched, and the derogative-yet-highly-descriptive portraits of the protagonist's beautiful clothing, I was quite worried that I had picked up a romance. However, for those of you who are also not fans of that genre, never fear: while the flowery description may occasionally give you pause, the book is absolutely devoid of love triangles and passionate glances. In fact, thematically, it's a thoroughly enjoyable mix of space opera and worldbuilding scifi flavored with a taste of mystery. I'm a huge fan of detective fiction, and even when they're less "whodunnit" than "whatyagonnadoaboutit," I still love the structure and focus on character that I think a mystery component brings to a story.
Despite an ongoing obsession with urban fantasy, noir, and heist stories, I'm paradoxically conservative when it comes to characters, and I was never really quite sure how I felt about the protagonist. Hail escaped her royal upbringing to become a gunrunner. The book focuses only on the badassery of the career and never really questions its morality. However, I personally couldn't get over the opening scene, where we see her in a room of corpses of her making. Gunrunners profit by inflaming wars and selling death. By their very nature, are rulebreakers who show a disdain for law and life. Personally, I'd want someone who is vying to be leader of a constitutional monarchy to question their past of illegality and pure bloodthirsty villainy. Hail isn't an honourable rogue. She punishes those she likes without trial and without due process, and yet her stalinesque savagery in a world of laws is never questioned.
The most controversial and memorable aspect of the book is probably going to be the creation of a female-dominated society. I found it thought-provoking, but not in the way the author intended. Personally, I think this book does a disservice to a discussion of sexism because the sexism here is so superficial. We're told that in Hail's world, the equal rights movement was taken "too far" and men are now considered inferior and forced into a lower role in society. That's what we're told, but in reality, men show absolutely no subservience or deference to their female "superiors" and are utterly unlimited by legal chains or glass ceilings. In our era, most of the sexism we encounter centers around objectification, tokenization, and glass ceilings, but this story supposedly happens in an even more sexist pre-lipservice era that would probably be more comparable to our 1890s. So where are the enforced gender roles and vicious stereotyping based on faulty pseudoscience? The characters occasionally make (forced, artificial) asides such as " men are not capable of the kind of responsibilities ", but they don't add any analogues to the specious biological arguments that cast women as smaller-brained, logic-deficient, emotion-driven, hysteria-prone weaklings, not any arguments that men are subordinate because they are biologically suited to be subordinate. Sure, I appreciated the occasional touches like describing a woman as " chatter[ing] like a schoolboy " but apart from a very few artificial attempts at creating a culture of ingrained sexism, I think the author mostly forgot about her attempt at a reverse-sexist culture.
In fact, even the gender gap itself was missing. Even though we're supposedly in a female-dominated world, women still seem to be caregivers and child-rearers. Men seem to be able to take on any career they desire, and they're often casually mentioned as the breadwinners. The attempts to demonstrate ingrained sexism were absurdly artificial. Take one conversation where Hail's male bodyguard accuses her of suspecting one man "Without any proof? Why? Because he's a man?" Well, I don't know, maybe it's because he's a man, or just maybe it's because they've just watched him attend a secret meeting with dissidents and killers. Within the book, the Director of Galactic Imperial Security, an admiral of the military, the prime minister, the head guard for the empress, the most elite of trackers, and even business owners such as a successful restaurateur are all men. The head of the resistance and the ruler of a rival empire are both men, yet no one objectifies or dehumanizes or attributes sexist stereotypes to them. Seems like the only thing a man can't do in this world is become emperor, and considering there are additional non-egalitarian genetic requirements for that anyway, I wouldn't consider an inability to become emperor much of a glass ceiling. Men of the society don't seem limited to me, and describing this as a sexist culture discounts the much more virulent sexism that women of our world have faced and even continue to face.
Behind the Throne is definitely intended to be the start of a series, and Wagers has left herself a lot of worldbuilding to explore. The story takes place in a planet-spanning empire: I want to know more about the industry, the tech, the exports that keep the lifestyle we see afloat. How do the colonized worlds feel? Do they welcome the Saxon empire? Do they seek true independence? How much say do they have in the government itself? I was rather fascinated by the blending of Hinduism and Catholic traditions, and I'd love to hear more about the religions of the world. I really appreciated the various same-gender couples throughout the book, which should have been particularly interesting given the supposed sexism of the culture, and I think this is worth further exploration in future books. We're briefly introduced to an alien species who have incredible healing capabilities, and while they mostly turned out to be a plot device in this story, I think they deserve deeper examination. The worldbuilding may have felt a bit flat for me, but on the other hand, this leaves a lot to expand on in the sequels. The true power of the story is its compulsive readability. No matter my criticisms, it was genuinely difficult to put down. If you're looking for something fast and fun with a bit of worldbuilding thrown in, Behind the Throne is definitely worth a look.
~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.