Jagernaut fighter pilot Sauscony (Soz) Valdoria is in command of a squadron of four Jagernaut pilots: neurologically enhanced empaths who have been bio-engineered as weapons. Soz is also an Imperial Heir of the Skolian Empire and may someday become its military commander. Skolian Jagernauts are pitted against the legions of the Trader empire, in particular its Aristo ruling class, a race that derives pleasure from the amplified pain and anguish of empaths, especially Jagernauts.
Primary Inversion is divided into three sections. In the first section, Soz and her squadron are taking shore leave on a planet that has remained neutral in the hostilities between the warring empires. It is there that Soz meets an Aristo named Jaibriol, who it turns out is heir to the Trader empire. Jaibriol is strangely interesting to Soz, despite her prior torture at the hands of an Aristo. Later, Soz and her Jagernaut squadron launch a desperate mission to save a planet from annihilation by the Trader empire. In the second section, Soz is sent for rest and recuperation on a planet, emotionally drained and suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Her condition continues to deteriorate. In the third section, Soz is recalled by her brother the Imperator, to join him on the Headquarters planet.
Primary Inversion was Catherine Asaro’s first novel. As such, it is an impressive debut with few significant stumbles and strong signs of promise. The pace moves things along at a brisk clip, and the key SF elements – FTL inversion drives and Jagernaut enhancements – are worked in as meaningful plot elements by the end of the story. The main character Sauscony (Soz) is convincingly described and engaging, and secondary characters are reasonably well drawn too. The political backdrop of warring empires provides depth and a sense of history.
Soz herself was my favorite character in this book, especially in the second and third sections, when she is struggling with post traumatic stress syndrome and then adventuring. In the first section, the narrative strains under a very heavy load of gadgetry exposition (FTL, Jagernauts, the ethnic roots of the empires), and Soz’s relationship with her fiancé is dropped in like a brick.
The three-section structure of the book worked unexpectedly well for me. Partly, because I was only semi-whelmed by the first section: I was happy to move on to a more character-centered narrative with less exposition.
In general, Primary Inversion is good, and it’s a promising sign that later novels by Asaro will be very good. It has many strong points that outweigh its weaknesses.
There are, however, disappointments: In starting off during R&R, we meet Soz’s squad, but some lumps of exposition are wince-worthy. I just took a deep breath and plowed through. I’ve hit more awkward sections elsewhere – for example I skipped chunks of Hammered. Soz’s agreement to marry Rex, a member of her squadron, was too unsubstantiated for my taste. It reminded me strongly of Heris’ romance with Petris, in Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party and Sporting Chance – i.e., military comrades with history predating the books, and we’re told that they now love each other. Rex might as well have been wearing “red shirt” for the defense of that planet threatened by the Aristos. Not only has he just gotten engaged, but he’s also a ‘short-timer’! No wonder he gets so badly injured, it’s practically a law of physics and clichés. Given that Soz is newly engaged, I was a little skeptical about the buzz of attraction she feels for Jaibriol in section one. I suppose she has enough stress and guilt from combat, but wouldn’t she be feeling a little guilty? Nor am I sure Soz (or her parents) really seem plausible as members of an imperial family. If they’re so hostile with the Aristos, would they really be this anonymous?
But these were balanced out by parts of Primary Inversion I thought successful: the civilians’ responses to the Jagernaut combat uniforms – black leather – could have felt like a cliché but I think it worked well throughout the book. The rum binge – Soz scratching her head with the Jumbler was well done. The point of view was maintained with Soz, but you could see that the bystanders were very nervous. I loved the description of Kurj’s gold-metallic hair, skin, and inner eyelids. Soz’s father and mother appear late in the story, but their warmth and affection are very convincing.
This review originally appeared on Bibliophage’s Buffet.