Sovereign, RM Meluch

sovereignSovereign, RM Meluch (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

It was 1985, a bunch of us had been clubbing in Nottingham, and then headed to the home of my sister’s boyfriend to kip over. I forget what triggered the conversation, but it was about science fiction, and my sister’s boyfriend handed me a book he recommended. It was Sovereign by RM Meluch. It was a year or two before I tracked down a copy and read it, but when I came to reread it for this review I realised I had no memory of its plot or setting. I think I know why. It’s not very good.

The setting is a mishmash of space opera, mixed mythologies and fantasy, with a cast of the special-est snowflakes in the galaxy, and from start to finish it plainly can’t decide where it’s going or what it plans to do when it gets there. Most of the story is thrown away so Meluch can spend pages having the protagonist angst about everything in his life and how it’s all gone horribly wrong – despite the fact he is near-immortal, so pretty and “fey” he would make a beautiful woman (or so we are repeatedly told), much stronger and fitter than humans, single-handedly saves the Earth from an alien attack, and has at least two deep romantic attachments…

Teal Ray Stewert is a Bay Royalist, which might well suggest some sort of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Spaaace story but, in fact, Royalist is the (extremely confusing) name of his race. The Royalists are long-lived, part-aquatic, can heal incredibly quickly (even regrowing their eyes after being blinded), and live among the islands of Arana, a world with two suns and extreme seasons. The Royalists are organised in families, ruled by a single king; and the Bay Royalists are those who have sired only one male child for 33 generations. This is part of a millennia-long breeding programme to create a Trieath, the end-result of 399 generations. The first Trieath, Akelan, has just been born. He is telepathic and charismatic. No other Bay Royalist family is close – most are stuck at the 33rd generation, the crisis generation – if they have girl children, they have to start over; or more than one child or twins, the line ends completely. Teal Ray Stewert is the 33rd of his line, and his father, Kaela, is king. But his father hates him because Teal’s birth resulted in the death of his mother.

It’s not entirely clear what sort of creature Bay Royalists are. Clearly they’re some sort of humanoid – as indeed are all the races in Sovereign. But Teal is described throughout as a very pretty young man, who looks much younger than his age. He is desired by both men and women – in fact, his first sexual experience is with a man, at age ten: “The affair continued awhile, till finally the Caucan bought his way out of Gordon Tras’ army and went home. He left a confused and desolate lover behind him … What Kaela discovered upset him worse. A trickle of blood ran down the back of Teal’s leg.” (p 27). The Caucans are descended from humans who settled the world thousands of years before. At periastron, when Arana is pulled from its circular orbit by its second sun, the climate in the north is either too cold or too hot for Caucans, so they descend on the Royalists’ lands in the southern hemisphere, killing them as if they were animals. Given the Royalists’ appearance, and the fact they live in houses, it’s not clear why the Caucans should refuse to admit they are human.

Except, Teal Ray Stewert might not be a young man. Later, he’s called a hermaphrodite, though it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it reference. Certainly, Teal is drawn to strong older male figures – and Meluch makes clear this is because he was not loved by his father, Kaela. In at least two such cases, Teal is effectively adopted by an older male and then becomes his lover. But Teal is characterised throughout Sovereign as male, and he also has sex with women – by the end of the book he has, in fact, two daughters.

Teal is estranged from his father and falls under the spell of Akelon, the Trieath. Akelon preaches peace and love, and takes his message first to Cauca (no inconsistency here then, with the Caucans thinking the Royalists are animals), and then to the overseas nation of Vakellan. But then the Caucans attack the Royalists again, and Akelon is killed (so the story is not about the Trieath…). Teal goes on a murderous rampage and then returns to Vakellan and joins its space force. Vakellan, for reasons which make no sense, has chosen to model its culture on that of the United States on Earth. Teal is one of a handful of special young people under the care of the space force’s commander. One of these special people designs and builds a supership, and Teal is given command of it. The alien Uelson attack Earth, and Teal flies to assist the Earth battlefleet. He single-handedly defeats the Uelson, but his ship is badly damaged and he is captured by the Uelson and held in their version of Gitmo.

Years later, he escapes and makes his way to Earth, where he pretends to be an officer in its space force. He draws the attention of a maverick admiral (as much for his prettyboy looks as his tactical genius or super-strength), and so rises up the ranks. Eventually he is given command of a dreadnaught, the Sovereign, designed by the same special young man from Vakellan who designed Teal’s first supership. Meanwhile, Teal has kept his origin secret – indeed, no one knows of the existence of the Royalists, or that Teal was the saviour of Earth during Armageddon I. And when he again saves the Earth during Armageddon II, it is as an Earth officer and the lover of the admiral.

The admiral dies, but Teal ends up in a relationship with one of the Sovereign‘s officers. There is another battle, and he is captured once again by the Uelson. But he’s rescued by his officers, and sort of has to admit who and what he really is. So he heads home to Arana to see if he can bury the hatchet with his father. Except it seems Akelon wasn’t killed after all, and he wants to marry Teal’s daughter (Teal is fifty but looks twenty-five, which he pretty much has for the entire novel). Teal reconciles with his father, and he even learns that his mother was the daughter of his father’s chief rival for the Royalist crown. But Teal has had enough, so he returns to Earth, but there’s some sort of emergency in the Taurus constellation, causing ships to disappear. They send in the Sovereign, but it’s destroyed by something unexplained. So Teal and his wounded-in-the-battle lover go off and retire on a backwater world of the Zhagaran Empire where everyone handily speaks English. Oh, and there was an Armageddon III in there somewhere as well.

It’s hard to describe quite how badly-structured Sovereign is. Teal is some sort of super-powered Mary Sue, but despite looking like a Justin Bieber-esque superman, he is treated like an animal on his home world. On Earth, he becomes a decorated officer without any experience or undergoing any training, and is given command of the space force’s flagship. Except for the explicit relationships with male lovers, and his alien origin, this could almost be JJ Abrams’ Kirk. The resemblance to the rebooted Star Trek does not end there – the plot of Sovereign is one event following another, few of which are actually connected or follow logically, much like in Abrams’ movies. Everyone in the book is a North American, even the aliens, and no effort is made to create anything like a believable world or universe. The various races are all humanoid, though clearly identifiable as alien – except the Royalists, who all resemble Greek gods and goddesses. None of it makes the slightest bit of sense.

Meluch’s Jerusalem Fire is a problematic novel, but it at least has a beginning, middle and end, and an identifiable plot. Sovereign does not. It comes as little surprise to discover it was Meluch’s first novel. Avoid.

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Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

With a title like Jerusalem Fire, and a blurb that begins “To most of the galaxy he was a legend without a face…” goes on to mention “Iry, the world of the Irin warrior-priests” and finishes “it needed only his presence to cause a jihad to boil out across the universe”, a reader might be forgiven for supposing Meluch had written a Jewish version of Dune. In fact, the back-cover blurb manages to completely misrepresent the story of Jerusalem Fire. Yes, there is some romanticisation of Jewish history – specifically Masada – much as Frank Herbert romanticised the Bedouin lifestyle. But the differences between Meluch’s novel and Dune are greater than than their similarities.

The “legend without a face” is Alihahd – which means “he left” in the language of one planet – who is a rebel runner in the Na’id Empire. After two millennia of dark age – a standard space opera trope – the Na’id conquered the galaxy under the aegis of “Galactic Dominion/Human Supremacy”. While their motives were initially pure, their unwillingness to brook any dissent has resulted in a near-totalitarian state. Their campaign of conquest ended some thirteen years earlier with the taking of Jerusalem, symbolic of the whole Earth, in a bloody battle.

Jersualem Fire opens with Alihahd’s ship being chased by a Na’id squadron. The refugees he’s carrying manage to escape in the lifeboats, but his ship is destroyed shortly afterwards. Alihahd and three other crew-members survive. They are rescued by a mysterious ship, which is also damaged. The ship crashes on a planet both recognise as the semi-mythical world of Iry. Only Alihahd, a young crewman called Vaslav, and Harrison White Fox Hall, captain of the mysterious ship, survive the crash.

They are taken in by Iry’s resident aliens. These come in two forms: the short, jolly, gnome-like ranga, and the tall, lithe aghara warrior-priests. The latter live in the Aerie, a village high up in the mountains, either side of a mile-deep chasm. The two halves of the village are joined by a single rope-bridge.

The aghara are indeed the warrior-priests of legend, though almost nothing about the “priest” aspect is described in the book. They are superlative sword-fighters, excellent marksmen, and possess psychic powers. Though they occasionally leave their planet, they have remained aloof from human affairs. Even the presence of a handful of humans on Iry – there are others beside Alihahd, Vaslav and Hall – is accepted begrudgingly. One of these humans is Jinnin-ben-Taire, who came to Iry as a child stowaway and, against all odds, trained to become a warrior-priest. He hates Alihahd the moment he lays eyes on him.

Meanwhile, Alihahd undergoes alcohol withdrawal, tries to work out if Hall is actually the captain of the Marauder, a mysterious pirate ship which uses a vast hologram of the Flying Dutchman as a disguise, and tries to find a way off-world. During this period, Alihahd’s disguise, which had darkened his skin, hair and eyes, works its way out of his system and reveals his true colouring: white, with blond hair and blue eyes. The Na’id operate a policy of miscegenation, and throwbacks to pure races such as Alihahd are hated and feared. One famous such person was the “White Na’id”, Shad Iliya, the general who took Jerusalem in a week, after a century-long siege by other generals.

It doesn’t take much insight on the part of the reader to realise Alihahd was Shad Iliya, and that he became an enemy of the Na’id Empire as a direct result of the battle of Jerusalem. The story leads up to an extended flashback describing the exact events and their effect on Shad Iliya. This section of the story is also what gives the book its title.

Then there’s Jinnin-ben-Taire, who scares the Itiri with his single-mindedness. He is banished after losing a fight for leadership against the Fendi, Roniva, and goes on a rampage across Na’id territory, which in turn explains his own origin.

Events come to a head when the Na’id land on Iry, and attempt to capture Alihahd, who by this point has dropped his disguise. At no point, do the Itiri (not “Irin”) ” boil out across the universe”.

Jerusalem Fire is a space opera that takes place almost exclusively on a single alien world. Only in that respect is it similar to Dune. On rereading it for this review, I found myself wondering why I had rated it so highly on previous reads. But somewhere around the middle, the story started to gel and I finished it liking it much more than I’d expected to. There are, however, some problematical areas. The Itiri, for example, speak an archaic form of Universal, the galactic language, and this is rendered as cod Elizabethan English. Such speech patterns don’t work in fantasy novels, and in a space opera they’re even less successful. Also, in the Na’id Empire humans who share Alihahd’s colouring are derogatively called “nazis”. There is far too much baggage attached to that term for it to be used in such a way – especially given the role the Jews play in the section set during the battle of Jerusalem. There is also a nasty streak of speciesism running throughout the novel. The Na’id are serious about their “Human Supremacy” – Shad Iliya spent much of his early military career butchering aliens. He hates aliens still – which does affect his dealings with the Itiri (and especially with some of their guests).

Jerusalem Fire is not a great sf novel, but it’s a better one then I had thought it would be. The central quartet of Alihahd, Hall, Roniva, and Jinnin-ben-Taire are perhaps a little one-note, and the setting is somewhat uncomfortable in places, but it’s a well-plotted and very readable novel. The trio depicted on the cover art, incidentally, bear no resemblance to the actual characters in the book.