Undercity (Skolian Empire)
by Catherine Asaro
Cover Artist: Alan Pollack
Review by Katie Carmien
Baen Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781476781419
Date: 26 April 2016 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In the Skolian Imperialate, forged by humans kidnapped from Earth by mysterious aliens millennia ago, family is everything. Major Bhaajan fought her way up from extreme poverty to the upper ranks of the military, and now she works as a private investigator on the rich world of Selei. When she's hired by the unimaginably powerful Majda family to find their missing prince, Dayjarind, she must return to her homeworld Raylicon--and to the Undercity, the slum beneath that gave her birth. To find the prince, she must reconnect with old friends and old enemies--but Dayjarind is just the beginning. A deadly chain of events has been set in motion, one that may destroy her home. So Bhaajan must decide where her loyalties lie…
First, it should be noted that the summary on the back has very, very little to do with the plot. It speaks of epic, galactic change; Undercity is actually an extremely localized, personal story. Which is not a bad thing--in fact, I think I enjoyed the book and got more than the book I was told to expect.
Asaro has been writing in the Skolian Imperialate universe for a long time, and it shows. Every aspect of the world is well-thought-out, with social customs clearly deliberately constructed to work with the history and culture Asaro has created. Everything, from the littlest detail (sleep schedules and default pronouns) to the big issues (secluded princes, Undercity gangs) seems organically grown up from the world she's built. Raylicon, even with its fantastical forty-hour day and cyborg citizens, feels like a real world--just a spaceship ride away.
If her world-building is stellar, her character work is better. Bhaajan--her conflicted emotions about the future of the undercity and her own future, her love for her friends, the way she pulls off a delicate balancing act between speaking her mind and not angering the most powerful family on the planet--is compelling. The secondary characters, like Jak, Dig, and Dayjarind Majda, are well-written. The impacts of their circumstances are clearly and naturally shown, incorporated perfectly into their reactions and dialogue.
In terms of negatives, there are very few. The pacing was somewhat off--Bhaajan found Dayjarind a little too quickly, for example. And while the major characters are great, the minor characters are often not well-distinguished. Sometimes Bhaajan would say she was meeting with someone, and then I'd mix that person up with a different character or think they were an entirely new character when in fact they'd been introduced a couple chapters ago.
Overall, Undercity is an engaging, immersive read, perfect for science fiction fans who like a little world-building with their laser guns and action.