Review: In Conquest Born

It’s interesting to re-read a book that made a huge impression on me the first time around. Some of them seem less exciting, while some hold up amazingly well upon multiple reads. (The best example I can think of for the latter case: Dune. Despite identifying the traitorous character by name on page 28, before we ever set foot on the eponymous planet, Herbert still surprised me with the betrayal…and when I re-read the book six months later, it happened again. I was getting all, “Aha! The Atreides are figuring it out! Duke Leto has a chance, maybe he’ll get away this time oh NOOOOOOOO” but I digress.)

The first time I read C. S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born, I was incredibly impressed. I immediately classed the book as one of my favorite science fiction novels. On my mental tally, it went right up there with Dune.

The novel explores the kinds of societies and personalities that might evolve in an environment of endless conflict. Two interstellar nations, the Azean Star Empire and the Braxin Holding, have been locked in a galactic-scale war for such a long time that, though the original antagonism is recorded, none of the combatants really care why the war started in the first place. The war has become a way of life for both sides, and both cultures have evolved along parallel – but mutually exclusive – courses in response to the war and to each other. The Azeans, determined to make themselves into the perfect fighting race, have started genetically engineering themselves – gunning not just for a specific “ideal” phenotype but for telepathic abilities, which the Braxins specifically abhor. The elitist Braxaná rulers of the Holding sought to preserve, by all the means at their disposal, the ancient warrior culture that first brought them to successful dominance over the other tribes of their planet; they hope that their traditions and ideals will carry them to victory in future conflicts as well. As Zatar puts the distinction between Empire and Holding: “While your people developed Civilization, we developed Man.”

In that environment, both nations accidentally produce a representative who embodies everything their culture has been evolving towards. The first half of the novel chronicles the formative years for Anzha lyu Mitethe, in Azea, and Zatar of the Braxaná. They both become renowned commanders in the Endless War. At almost the exact midpoint of the book, they meet each other in a room – and in the second half, the galactic war becomes an obsessive personal vendetta for both characters. They seek to manipulate their societies’ political and military goals towards their personal objective of destroying their counterpart.

The story is both epic and intimate, with references to more than enough planets, cultures, species, and events to establish a credible universe. Like Friedman’s other science fiction, major themes include self-discovery, the interplay of sexuality and power, and descriptions of characters and cultures that are neither fully good or evil.

Maddeningly, Conquest was Friedman’s first novel and not only did she send the manuscript to a publisher unsolicited, but that publisher accepted it.

I was impressed that neither side in Conquest‘s war is the “good” or “bad” guys. The first time I read the book, I immediately fixated on the idea that the Azeans were good and the Braxins evil, but even then I had more than enough evidence to show that the dichotomy was not so black and white. The novel opens with startling introductions to Braxin ruthlessness and callousness, but throughout the plot Zatar demonstrates a clear ability to see value in people who his fellow Braxaná would immediately execute as offensive to their narrow tribal sensibilities. While I think I have more sympathy for the Azean culture (what can I say – I like women’s rights and I don’t like inbreeding!) they openly and legally treat Anzha horribly for not expressing the phenotype of their genetic ideal. Often enough, I found myself sympathizing with a Braxaná character who I know holds ideals that are anathema to me.

Conquest is set up as a series of linked short stories rather than a single narrative arc. It reads like a set of episodic glimpses into the critical moments of Zatar and Anzha’s lives, often from very different perspectives. This mechanic is something that I liked better the first time I read the book than the second, when the shifts in tense or narrative format stood out more jarringly to me. For example, one chapter has present-tense narration, a couple other scattered chapters have the form of written correspondence, and at least one is from a first-person perspective. However, as a guy who enjoys world-building, I can easily see the value of this mechanism: it bolsters the impression that the story takes place in a complete universe, filled with many different characters with their own motivations and concerns, by giving us firsthand glimpses into those characters’ tales. In fact, the story is full of secondary characters, most of whom we see at least twice – often with a wide separation between our first meeting with such a minor character and our next encounter. Friedman makes sure to give us plenty of hints to see evidence of development in those characters as well as in our two protagonists – I had plenty of cause to flip back to an earlier page for confirmation, thinking, “oh, hey, it’s that guy!”

The setting is of the variety of science fiction that seems so far advanced into the future that the technologies become much more fantastical. This has the immediate advantage that the characters can just go to different planets without any tedious mucking about in hyperspace (to borrow a phrase). The few space battles we readers are privy to involve “fields” and “Voidflight” and “locksync” and other such things that sound like technologies or concepts we might develop in a few thousand years of spaceflight. At the same time, the space battles are highly technical affairs within the ruleset that Friedman has invented, and – fascinating to me – they revolve around squadron formations and estimated probabilities, with the whole game really being about out-maneuvering the opposing formation. (I pictured something like the dogfights depicted in Battlestar Galactica, but with weapons that aren’t quite guns and all taking place in some higher-dimension hyperspace.) The indistinguishable-from-magic setting also gives Friedman more latitude for suspension of disbelief: for example, the telepathic capabilities of the Azeans can get a bit of a free pass. And Friedman’s universe can mix in some concepts from fantasy, as well, a genre that I think she is a little more comfortable with. Both of her heroes happen to carry a bladed weapon, for different reasons, bringing martial technology full circle in a way, and highlighting how this story is more about Zatar and Anzha than it is about the galactic war.

Friedman’s exploration of the personal nature of this epic conflict is powerful. That sort of personal connection between the antagonists – making them not just foot soldiers to Opposing Causes, but people who Hate Each Others’ Guts (in a complicated way) – is what makes for the most dramatic story. This is a tried-and-true formula: it’s not enough that Darth Vader is the evil face of an evil Empire and Luke Skywalker is a heroic freedom fighter…the deepest emotional gut-punch delivered in the Star Wars trilogy is not when Vader explodes a planet, but when he utters the unforgettable phrase “no…I am your father!” In Conquest Born makes that kind of dynamic explicit – and gives it a unique flavor – by giving the Braxin culture the idea of the k’airth, a sort of everlasting conflict between two people in which they both must constantly improve their tactics to maintain a delicate balance. The k’airth starts at Anzha and Zatar’s first meeting and provides a perfect backdrop for their obsessive fixations on each other, with a dose of sexual tension in the mix, too. (Anzha, of course, isn’t playing by Braxin rules – she’s playing simply to kill Zatar, which makes his view of their relationship not only a perceptive insight but also a liability.) After the antagonists’ first meeting, the trajectory of the plot gains an inertia that carries it towards one character’s inexorable and total victory over the other. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the climax of the book comes not with Anzha or Zatar slaying the other with their respective symbolic bladed weapon, but instead with a much more subtle, unexpected, and complete defeat of their nemesis. I found myself sharing in the triumph of the victor.

On my first read, I came away with the impression that the book evenly split its attention between Anzha and Zatar, giving me a complete picture of both characters and both societies as they built up onto this collision course. This time, though, I realized that Zatar is clearly the main focus, with well more than 50% of the page space. Certainly, after he meets Anzha he spends a great deal of time fretting about her and so we see her development from his perspective. And Zatar is a fascinating character. However, I felt that the novel could have benefited from a firsthand glimpse of Anzha’s life as Starcommander Anzha lyu Metithe. At first, her story is that of a distraught, persecuted girl coming into her own – and then we practically leave her just as she finds her purpose and place on a battlecruiserful of vengeance-hungry Azean soldiers. But after that, we see her through Braxin sensor nets as she turns the course of the war from endless stalemate toward a possible endgame. The problem is that Anzha doesn’t stop developing when she boards that battlecruiser, with her proceeding to tear around the galaxy ripping the Holding apart – the Starcommander we see in the final confrontation is more sober, more melancholy, and somehow more uprooted than the brash young woman whose inner turmoil found focus on the goal of defeating the Braxins. The Anzha of the final confrontation is even sympathetic to Zatar, as the final blow falls. We hear of the key bits of that story, but I would have liked to see it myself.

One big shortcoming to this novel, as I read it: I have the “Fifteenth Anniversary Edition,” and its editing is horrible. There are a lot of instances of misplaced punctuation, an extra (or missing) pronoun or preposition here or there, and some spelling errors of simple words. Still: while these errors were distracting enough to give me pause for a moment, none of them made any sentences completely incomprehensible. I was soon past the problem spot and reading on – the pacing and descriptions were well more than enough to keep me engaged. Kudos to the author.

In some important ways, In Conquest Born does not have the cohesive narrative structure of Friedman’s other science fiction, particularly the excellent This Alien Shore, and her choice to give us a sense of the great breadth of this universe necessarily reduces the depth we see in the novel. (This kind of tradeoff is never more evident in a sci-fi or fantasy epic than when there is a glossary at the back with a large number of defined terms that languish unused in the main plot. Not that that’s a bad thing – I love world-building! – it simply represents a tradeoff in storytelling.) I still think that In Conquest Born is excellent, though, because of its attention to describing the Braxin and Azean societies, its refusal to lean on stereotypical concepts of good and evil, its unwavering focus on the personal nature of its central conflict, and because of the complexity and richness in development of its protagonists as they gain stature in their respective societies. It’s a book that made me think and got me talking about its themes. The novel definitely holds up to a second reading.

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