Following the destruction of Reaper’s tribe, Devi and Rupert shelter on a Terran cash planet while Caldswell and his crew lead the lelgis through hyperspace and away from them. Their unplanned hyperspace jump has cost them a year’s worth of missing time, Devi’s virus is progressing towards a potentially fatal end, and they cannot turn to either of their governments for safety, as the Eyes are seeking to capture Devi and harness her virus.
This book is such a mixed bag of the brilliant and the frustrating. Let’s start with the frustrating.
I love Devi as a character, but alas, in Heaven’s Queen an imposter seems to have taken her place. Surely the Devi I know wouldn’t act so much like a petulant brat towards everyone from an old lover to a perfectly amicable space hippy, with her scenes in the Church of the Cosmos being so uncharacteristic that I have a hard time believing someone who acts so whiny and unadaptable over a bit of gravitational weirdness could’ve cut it in an elite mercenary unit like the Blackbirds. She might forgive the man who knowingly and willfully killed someone he thought was her, but she wouldn’t turn into a lovesick teenager carrying on about how he was the most important thing in the universe (especially once she’s embroiled in trying to save the universe), much less tolerate his jealously staking his claims over her in front of her ex like a dog pissing up a lamppost. She wouldn’t sit around playing house with her murderous beau without a single thought or qualm about the third of a species she was just responsible for annihilating.
Well, this Devi does. If Rachel Bach was writing about two different Devis, I wish I’d known sooner, because she sure as hell wasn’t writing about the one I met in the first book of the trilogy. And where the romance has never taken over up until now, it absolutely dominates the first half of the book. You forgive each other, but you shouldn’t be together, but you love each other, but you shouldn’t be together, but his hair’s so pretty, but you shouldn’t be together… You know, if the really great world-building and the epic plot and all of the fascinating supporting characters weren’t getting sidelined for this relationship, I might care more about the romantic angst. But they are, so I don’t.
Because of this, and because of the setup that has Devi and Rupert start off more or less stranded together, the beginning of the book is really quite slow and feels like an anticlimax after the way Honour’s Knight ended. Once the plot kicks into high gear, though, we hit the good stuff. It’s a shame the characterisation in this volume is weak because this is the finest display of Bach’s ability to sustain intensity without turning the story into the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay film, without drowning out the moments of wonder and horror like the haunting death of an emperor phantom or the final revelation of just what the Eyes did to Maat.
I found myself more interested in Maat’s story than in Devi’s, in a way. The conditions in which she was kept were so incomprehensibly cruel, and yet it’s hard to sit in judgement of those who put her there without thinking about how few of us, with the knowledge they had at the time, would have done any different to protect the universe and everything in it we held dear. For most of the trilogy she’s been a name hanging over the characters’ heads, but not much more than a silhouette of a character herself, played for creep factor. Here she becomes real, and it’s impossible to ignore what she was: A little girl tortured in the name of the survival of billions.
I really like the look into the nature of the lelgis and their motivations, as well. The enigmatic nature of Devi’s initial contacts with them and the presentation of themselves as guardians of the cosmos had me in mind of the vorlons from Babylon 5 for a while, but it was oddly fitting that something so epic originated from something so mundane and, well, human, as hubris.
The ending was a bit pat but I mostly appreciated that it wasn’t too drawn out. My favourite part about it was the Sacred King actually appearing on the page and the intriguing hints as to his nature. I hope that’s not the last we see of him; if it’s true that the author plans to return to this world with a different set of characters, I’d enjoy seeing something maybe a bit more localised in Paradoxian territory so that things like the Sacred King’s true nature and the history of how he came to be so sacred to Paradox could be explored in more depth.
I find myself coming back to the same thing I said at the end of book two: This trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken alone, Heaven’s Queen is a problematic novel with a suspenseful, and not ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. Viewed in hindsight as a whole, I find myself more forgiving of the Paradox trilogy’s issues in light of its accomplishments, and I would like to see what other feats of world-building the author accomplishes. At some point, I will definitely check out the work she has written under her other name of Rachel Aaron.