Monday, May 3, 2010

Book Review: Bitter Angels by C.L. Anderson

bitterangelsBitter Angels is the winner of the 2009 Philip K. Dick Award for distinguished science fiction.  It's a space opera/espionage story by Sarah Zettel , published under the pseudonym C.L. Anderson.

Terese Drajeske is a former operative of the Guardians, the organization tasked by the United Earth Government with countering threats to the peace between earth and her many colonies.  She is jolted out of the more peaceful life she has built for herself  by the news that Bianca Fayette, her longtime friend and mentor, has been mysteriously killed while conducting an investigation.  Despite having once sworn that she would never return to the Guardians, Terese agrees to come out of retirement, despite the pleas of her family and the risk that she will destroy the peace and happiness she has found since the devastating events that drove her out of the Guardians the first time.

Terese travels to the Erasmus system, where Bianca died.  Once a prosperous group of settlements, Erasmus suffered an economic collapse after advances in faster-than-light travel made its formerly lucrative position as a shipping hub obsolete.  It's hereditary rulers maintain their grip on power through a massive system of surveillance and secret police and a crushing system of debt bondage that keeps the bulk of the population in a state of permanent indentured servitude to their rulers.   Though seemingly too impoverished and busy struggling for survival to present a serious threat to outsiders, the Guardians believe that Erasmus is a source of instability and a potentially serious threat to the peace of interstellar civilization.   Terese will have to delve deep into this oppressive, decaying society  to discover just what happened to Bianca, and find out what she had discovered that was worth killing over.

Bitter Angels is a good book, but a somewhat frustrating one.  The book has a strong start, a strong conclusion, and lots of good elements that sometimes felt like less than the sum of its parts due to pacing problems.  After a very effective setup, the story started to drag, spending a lot of time seeming like things were about to get more interesting without doing so.  I liked the premise and the setting enough to keep going, and was ultimately glad I did, but too much of  the time I spent reading felt like something I had to trudge through to get to the payoff.

The book does have considerable strengths.  Erasmus is a very well-done setting, and Anderson does a great job bringing it to life.  There's an intense sense of decay, fear, and desperation as we see as we see the people of Erasmus struggling to escape their crushing debts to their rulers, while draconian laws, ubiquitous government surveillance, and the power of the secret police to create a nearly Stalinist level of paranoia.

I thought Therese's emotional struggle as she is torn between loyalty to her dead friend and her promise to her family that she would never go back to the Guardians was very well-done.  Therese's relationship with her husband is a particularly strong element here, as Therese faces the possible dissolution of her life's great source of stability.  Despite his relatively modest time on stage, her husband is a well-drawn, sympathetic character; his importance to Therese, and hers to him, comes through strongly, and his pain and fear at the thought of his wife returning to a career that nearly killed her and left her psychologically shattered is palpable.  Similarly, the portrayal of the sacrifices made by characters from Erasmus as they struggle through their lives in a dehumanizing, spirit-crushing society was very effective and added a lot.

Overall, I would recommend Bitter Angels for fans of science fiction, provided you're willing to be patient with some parts that drag in the middle.  The setting and premise work well, the characters are very effectively done, and the conclusion has an emotional charge that ultimately makes it worthwhile.

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