Tom Doherty Associates (TOR), 2000

Catherine Asaro’s works are often recommended when this question is raised amongst readers. (Amidst all the debate and kurfufflery, ruffled readers’ feathers and bleeding hearts.)

When a Harvard PhD writes a series of books commonly reviewed (and awarded gold medals) in Romantic Times, that’s what you get.

And this series? About one of the most recent installments, Booklist states: “Asaro’s Skolian saga is now nearly as long and in many ways as compelling as Dune, if not more so, featuring a multitude of stronger female characters.”

That’s right: it was the promise of well-drawn female characters that first drew me to this series, and it’s why I continue to return.

(I’ve only read Dune of Herbert’s series: should I make a more earnest attempt?)

But, ironically, this installment features a male main character. Kelric has returned and, while he’s been away, Skolia has changed dramatically.

(The paperback describes Ascendant Sun as a new novel in the saga, but the author’s website describes it as a standalone; it features a character who was at the heart of her Nebula-nominated The Last Hawk, but the reader is provided with all the necessary information to jump in with this volume. So maybe you can have it both ways.)

With a chemical physicist who runs a research company writing the books, you can bet there’s a good chunk of science in her Skolian Empire series. Ascendant Sun is no exception.

It’s not unusual to find an appendix with a lot of multi-syllabic words offering technical explanations and descriptions in her works. And periodically there are technical passages that I happily skim.

These “hard sci-fi” elements are undoubtedly quite thrilling to those who want to understand them, but you can fully enjoy these stories without understanding any of it.

(And, beyond that, the language is straightforward and unremarkable. Occasionally there is “sweeping” and “swelling” and people are “drawn into embraces” and “lie about langorously”, but the prose is relatively free of chichés.)

It’s also not unusual to find sexism turned on its head in this series. Take this cover, for instance.

How often does one see a female figure placed on display, there for a male figure to admire? And doesn’t it strike you as slightly odd to see that oh-so-familiar situation reversed in this cover?

We expect to see men leering and ogling women in media, but the cover of Ascendant Sun gives that expectation a good shake. And another good shake because the male is not young.

The woman is hardly some nubile teenager, though she is obviously younger than the man she is admiring, and the entire scene smacks of objectification, doesn’t it?

(In case you’re curious: the man has techonological elements to his physiology, so the over-defined musculature is intentional. The whole scene makes me giggle a little nervously, like a pre-teen girl.)

This scene accurately reflects one of the novel’s themes/plots, but it also hints at the sense of uncomfortable pleasure that the reader periodically experiences with these reads.

They are solidly entertaining (there are high-action sequences where I simply cannot put down her books), but there are some very squirmy bits too.

Sexism has been officially abolished in these worlds, with all interested parties claiming that they seek an egalitarian society, but sexism still exists. It’s just not the kind of sexism that readers will be expecting.

These scenes are not presented in soap-box style, but incorporated into the novel’s storyline, so that the reader is swept along with the experience. And, because the characters are well-developed, it does not feel contrived.

So, for instance, it’s almost a non-issue that at one point Kelric, who is stranded without money or identification and is looking for work, is expected to sleep with the woman who is hiring for the position.

(I don’t mean to suggest that Catherine Asaro is simply creating a society of reversals; there is nothing simple about the way that she casts these situations, just as there is nothing simple about the science in her work.)

This is a very small detail within the landscape of the story, but it’s an example of the kind of unsettled feeling that reading these stories can provoke.

It’s the kind of unsettling feeling that reminds you that science-fiction is as much about the world we live in as the world created within its pages.

Have you tried any of Catherine Asaro’s novels? (The first in this series is Primary Inversion, but I started with The Veiled Web myself, a standalone novel not in this series.) Do you / could you read the appendices?