Monday, July 13, 2020

Book Review: The Roads of Heaven

Book Review: 'The Roads of Heaven' by Melissa Scott
5 / 5 Stars

‘The Roads of Heaven’ was published by Doubleday / The SF Book Club in May 1988. The cover art is by Ron Walotsky. It compiles all three volumes of the so-called ‘Silence Leigh’ trilogy, consisting of ‘Five-Twelfths of Heaven’ (1985), ‘Silence in Solitude’ (1986), and ‘The Empress of Earth’ (1987), all of which first appeared as mass-market paperbacks from Baen Books.

With the paperback editions long out of print, the compilation is probably the easiest and most affordable way to acquire the series. That said, it took most of the month of June for me to finish all 760 pages of ‘The Roads of Heaven’.

Melissa Scott (b. 1960) began publishing in the early 80s and continues to write today, in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. She also has published novels for the ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Stargate’ franchises.

‘Roads’ is set in the far future, with most of the colony worlds of known space under the rule of the quasi-Islamic Hegemony. The Hegemon, an otherwise despotic ruler, tolerates some degree of malfeasance among the more independent-minded trade worlds....... provided such malfeasance serves his purposes. Within the Hegemon, women are relegated to a subservient status, obliged to obey the orders of their male guardians, and required to go veiled and escorted on those occasions when they must go out in public.

[‘The Roads of Heaven’ is subtle, but effective, in its allegorical examination of the subjugation of women under Islam, particularly in its second volume, ‘Silence in Solitude’, which revolves around the fate of women held under a kind of futuristic Purdah.]

The heroine, Silence Leigh, is an anomaly in the world of the Hegemony: she is a fully qualified starship pilot, taking her grandfather’s merchant ship The Black Dolphin from one world to another. However, in the opening chapter of the inaugural novel, ‘‘Five-Twelfths of Heaven’, the death of her grandfather has left Silence’s future, and the disposition of ownership of The Black Dolphin, in the hands of her male guardian, the oleaginous and self-serving Uncle Otto. But when Uncle Otto is a no-show in Secasian Family Court, Silence finds herself destined to serve as the employee / consort of a local merchant, the loathsome Tohon Champuy.

In desperation, and needing a male guardian, Silence agrees to a marriage of convenience with two men from the ship Sun-Treader : pilot Denis Balthasar, and engineer Chase Mago. For the two men, it’s a chance to acquire an experienced pilot to lend assistance to their trading flights among the planets of the Hegemony, and for Silence, it’s a chance to retain her independence.

Without disclosing any major spoilers, I’ll simply remark that the major underlying theme of the trilogy deals with the efforts of Silence, Denis Balthasar, and Chase Mago to find the quasi-mythic planet called Earth, a world which no one has traveled to for centuries, due to the absence of accurate navigational data. Their efforts will bring them into contact with the unforgiving military of the Hegemon; the Satrap of Inarime, whose offer of assistance comes with a potentially lethal price; and a journey through a region of space jealously guarded by the Rose World coalition, who do not take kindly to intruders…………

‘The Roads of Heaven’ is one of the best space operas I’ve yet read. Its prose style is straightforward and engaging, and while the narrative's pacing is deliberate (and devoid of the over-the-top themes of many space operas - there are no mile-long spaceships travelling through black holes to confront computers the size of planets in ‘The Roads of Heaven’), it benefits from having well-drawn characters, and genuinely suspenseful passages (notably, these passages deftly avoid cliched actions in arriving at a resolution).

Another interesting aspect of the trilogy is its use of magic – specifically, a mixture of astrology and alchemy – to underpin technology and space travel. While the mechanics of interstellar travel using ‘tinctures’ and ‘harmonies’ and mystical symbology does sometimes get a bit labored, its eccentricity brings something new to the trope of how to get your spaceship from point A to point B.

The verdict ? ‘The Roads of Heaven’ is a solid 5-star trilogy, and well worth searching out.

1 comment:

Joachim Boaz said...

I just bought (but haven't read) Melissa Scott's first novel The Game Beyond. Sounds like I need this trilogy as well!

Thanks for the review.