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Matriarch by Karen Traviss

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Book Information  
AuthorKaren Traviss
SeriesWess'har Wars
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Karen Burnham 
(Jan 26, 2007)

Any review of the fourth book in a series carries with it immense risk of spoilers. Frankly, just mentioning a character implies that they survived through the previous three books, which may take away some surprises for the reader, or at least drain situations of their tension. So if you’re sensitive to spoilers, and haven’t read the first three books yet (“City of Pearl,” “Crossing the Line,” and “The World Before”), stop reading now.

OK, onto book four. As we’re in the middle of a series that is planned to run for six books, Traviss has to spend a significant amount of time pushing several plots slightly forward, while keeping up with the emotional developments several of the main characters. The Eqbas invasion of the issen’j home world proceeds, but does not go smoothly. Lindsay Neville and Mohan Rayat, those who detonated cobalt-seeded nuclear bombs that wiped out most of the bezeri species have been infected with c’naatat and uncomfortably adapted to living underwater with the few remaining bezeri, mostly helping them preserve their history. There are less than one hundred left, mostly elderly. The three-way relationship of Shan Frankland, Aras, and Ade Bennett moves forward, running into any number of stumbling blocks between them and stable happiness. Eddie, the BBC journalist, tries to figure out how to deal with the fact that the Eqbas will be headed for Earth soon, and people on Earth don’t seem to be fully aware of what that means.

All this being the case, the book reads a little slowly. Mostly we’re looking at people suffering the consequences of their decisions. We’re looking at a lot of people suffering, period. It’s a pretty dark time in the story line. Almost no one seems to be happy at any point in the book, except for brief moments that add to the depression when they end suddenly. It is excellent in that it is really drilling down deeply into the ramifications of all that’s gone before, and it doesn’t shy away from the really hard ethical questions at all.

We spend a lot of time looking at questions of environmental balance from the wess’ej point of view. The issen’j have completely covered their home world, killing every other species except for some fish. What would it mean to restore ecological balance there? How many issen’j is it worth killing to achieve that goal? If one issen’j asks for your intervention but five billion others oppose you, are you still right to intervene? Then there are the questions related to the (pseudo-scientific, basically magical) c’naatat. It conveys immortality to whatever creature is infected with it. Most of the aliens don’t want anything to do with it, realizing what the consequences would be if it got into wide circulation. Bets are that humans wouldn’t be so restrained. To what lengths should Shan go to contain it from being spread any further? What are the consequences of giving it to Lindsay and Rayat?

This volume has a lot of talking about these questions: Ade talks to Shan, Shan talks to the Eqbas, the local wess’ej talk to Shan, the bezeri talk to Lindsay, Lindsay talks to Rayat, etc. What action there is takes place on the issen’j planet, and it isn’t pretty. To people for whom only the end results matter, “rules of engagement” isn’t a relevant concept. They need to reduce the population. Whether that happens through voluntarily accepted birth-control or the wholesale slaughter of civilians is irrelevant. This disturbs Shan, Eddie and even the local wess’ej deeply. Even the Eqbas themselves start to wonder about the utility of their actions – with the resources at their disposal, what’s the best they can hope to accomplish? Given that, how much bloodshed is it worth?

It’s all very detailed and interesting. And the characters we’ve come to care about have to struggle with some very deep issues. However, the writing and dialogue is still a bit of a struggle to read, and the unrelenting seriousness of it all can drag. This isn’t for people expecting adventure oriented space opera, but if you’ve read this far you knew that already. If you’re looking for ideas-oriented science fiction without a sugar coating, this is the series for you, and book four foregrounds that particular element of the narrative. As we move forward toward the inevitable Eqbas contact with Earth itself, the action will likely pick up again. Until then, Traviss has given us plenty of things to think about.

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