In Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1986)
Review by Ian Sales
Although Celia S Friedman proved a reasonably popular author in the UK during the 1980s, her novels seem to have slipped me by. Perhaps because I’d formed the mistaken impression, based on her Coldfire trilogy of Black Sun Rising, When True Night Falls and Crown of Shadows, she wrote fantasy. But the Coldfire books are actually a science fiction/fantasy mix, and In Conquest Born, a sequel to which did not appear until 2004, is pure space opera. Having said all that, I’m not really convinced I missed anything by not reading In Conquest Born when it was originally published…
At some indefinable point in the distant future, there are two antaognistic space empires, the Braxi and the Azeans. The Braxi are warlike, barbaric, and thoroughly bad. They treat their women like chattel, don’t seem to believe in human rights, and are ruled by the Braxaná, a tribe of pale-skinned and black-haired humans who have inbred so much that while they may be tall and strong and good-looking and ruthless, they are also prone to dying of a particular recurring plague. Oh, and there’s not many of them left – far fewer, in fact, than the regular Braxi believe. The Azeans, on the other hand. are the product of genetic engineering, undertaken millennia before so that they might survive the inimical environment of their world. They are golden-skinned and white-haired, the genders are treated equally, and they are more technologically-minded than the Braxi (who, is it said, steal Azean technology). They also embrace psychic powers, and even have an Institute which trains Functional Telepaths and Probes (which are even stronger telepaths).
The Braxi and the Azean have always been at war, and whenever a truce is declared one or the other side breaks it within a few years. Planets change hands frequently, are their populations are usually slaughtered to make room for the other side’s colonists. In other words, neither side is admirable – even if Friedman intended for the Azeans to be the good guys.
The novel’s story focuses on two characters, one from each side. Anzha was born with pale-skin and red hair, and so cannot become a full Azean, despite the fact both her parents were golden-skinned, white-haired Azeans. But the Azeans are racist like that. Zatar, on the other hand, is a purebred Braxaná, albeit a great deal smarter than his peers and he also takes a non-Braxaná woman as the Mistress of his House (ie, housekeeper, chatelaine and occasional companion). In Conquest Born follows these two as they rise up the ranks in their respective empires. Anzha becomes a powerful telepath, but then joins the Fleet and becomes a successful captain during the many Border Wars. Zatar makes lots of money, and then becomes a powerful political figure, eventually taking over as the Braxi emperor (previously they had been ruled by a senate of Braxaná, the Kaim’erate). Occasionally, the book breaks away from these two to tell the story of a handful of ancillary characters, such as Ferian, a half-Braxaná who leaves the Azeans to join the Braxi, or various women who are abused by assorted Braxaná.
For much of In Conquest Born‘s length, Anzha holds the upper hand. She has introduced telepathy to space combat, and the Braxi are struggling. But once Zatar proves himself a complete hero (and completely unlike all the other Braxaná) by capturing an Azean space fighter, the Braxi start winning battles. When an assassination plot by Zatar fails to kill Anzha, he engineers her fall from grace, and she goes on the run through the Barren Space. But the plot then takes a sideways swerve and throws in a plot-twist from the distant past, when an archaeological team discover a potrait of a legendary Braxi leader from millennia previously, before even the Braxaná seized control of the Braxi home world.
There’s no denying that In Conquest Born is a page-turner, and at 511 pages (in my 1989 Legend paperback edition) that’s just as well. However, it’s all very melodramatic, and seems to forever teeter on the edge of ridicule. Both Anzha and Zatar are such racial paragons, it’s inevitable they would end up as the only possible lovers for each other – but given the nature of the setting, it’s equally inevitable any such relationship would be near impossible, and might never even happen. Unfortunately, there’s a nasty line of racial essentialism running throughout the book, and it often leaves a bad taste. There’s also the Braxaná treatment of women, or indeed their complete amorality. Members of the Kaim’erate, for example, can kill anyone just because they feel like it – they call it Whim Death, and it’s perfectly legal. The Azeans are no better, although they do at least seem to have some sort of concept of human rights (albeit perhaps not alien rights). Yet the Azeans still give members of their own race preferential treatment, and consider all others second-class citizens.
The Braxi too don’t really convince as a technological society. They appear to be on a level with the Azeans, and it’s implied much of their technology is stolen from their enemies. But, in a particularly dumb piece of background detail, the Braxi always build their technology reversed, so that handles and switches are on the other side or operate in the opposite way. The story also makes much of the many and complicated “modes” of Braxi speech, as capable of being spoken only by the Braxaná, but no reference is made to the mechanism, there’s no indication why only the Braxaná can speak it, and the whole thing does seem somewhat implausible.
While In Conquest Born‘s universe has all the bells and whistles you could wish for in a space opera, it does often lack rigour. Anzha and Zatar are also probably too vivid a pair of characters, even for so colourful a universe. The amorality also reads badly, more so now that it might have done back in 1986. For that reason, I’m not convinced In Conquest Born has aged particularly well, but there are no doubt science fiction readers who will see nothing wrong in it and might well enjoy its overly rich and melodramatic story.