Spherical Harmonic, book 7 in the Skolian Saga series, is my first book by Catherine Asaro, and unfortunately it doesn’t stand on its own at all. A memorably poetic expression of unusual scientific concepts is blended with an ungainly tale of interstellar court intrigue. So much of this book seems to be recapping from earlier titles in the series, retold from a distant and rather cold perspective, that I found it hard to work up any emotional investment in the plot or characters.
The first 75 pages, before the court intrigue kicks in, are the most interesting. Dehya Selei, the Ruby Pharaoh of an intergalactic dynasty, has washed up in an alien forest, amnesiac and abandoned. She struggles alone through the eerie landscape, pursued by a furious tree-man out for vengeance. She also suffers from periodic attacks of free verse
vers libre symmetric
except classier than this
vers libre symmetric
…like that. They allude to Dehya’s perceptions as she phases between the physical world and another universe that she can enter using a mathematical function. Once she recovers herself, she regroups with her own people and sets off into the court intrigue, in which she must rescue her husband and assimilate plot twists that have happened to other people in previous books.
Unfortunately, the story’s biggest weakness is its leading lady and her first-person narration. Although she’s the smartest person in the universe, omnicompetent Dehya is not a very interesting viewpoint character, far less vivid than, say, Anita Blake, or Claire-from-Outlander. My problem as a Skolian novice isn’t that Dehya doesn’t explain the history of Skolian interstellar intrigue, or why certain events are important; she does. She’s less adept, however, at helping the reader to feel that importance. The novel has a cold, detached feel; there are no new relationships to track and little development in any existing ones. The emotional impact seems muted in many ways – at least for a first-timer, it’s hard to grieve for a lost character who is only a blandly recapped vision from Dehya’s memory. Dehya spends a lot of time grieving for characters who, I gather from the appendix, are in fact not dead, and that greatly diminishes the tension. Dehya’s viewpoint is so sheltered from the common people of her universe that it’s hard to remember they are there and not respond to her worries with a cosmic “So What?” I found it difficult to get any real sense of consequence from her actions, or to find anyone to identify with.
With the relationships a definite problem, one next looks at the science. Here the book is much better, but still not my ideal; it succeeds admirably in one respect and fails in another. At their best, the “shape poems” and similar devices are a wonderfully atmospheric, highly visual way to convey the feeling of a scientific transformation. However, like many historical fiction fans, I like to feel I’ve learned something when reading hard SF, yet even after dutifully studying the appendices I didn’t feel I understood spherical harmonics or what makes them interesting well enough to explain them to anyone. Although the harmonic functions are evocatively presented, they are so far over my educated-layman head as to be indistinguishable from magic, and thus not as interesting to me as if I had the illusion I understood what was going on.
I did something for this book I’ve never done before, and passed it back for a second review by someone who knows and likes the series (see Lori-Anne’s review). It seems possible that the interactions that appeared so flat to me will be colored with rich nuances in a fan’s eye. It’s only to be expected that fans will appreciate late installments in a series more than someone just beginning, but it’s still necessary for series installments to have enough juice on their own to be enjoyable. Except for the scientific atmosphere, this book is sadly lacking in juice. I will try Catherine Asaro again based on other glowing reviews and intriguing earlier plot descriptions. I only wish Spherical Harmonic itself made more effort to win me over.