The Price of the Stars (Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before… A young woman, the political leader of a culturally- and economically-important planet in a federation, persuades a legendary freebooter, who has the fastest merchant ship in the galaxy, to join the fight against an implacable enemy whose leaders possess near-magical powers. The freebooter proves to be an effective general, and the Republic wins the war, but not before the woman’s home world is destroyed. The two marry. It does sound a little familiar, doesn’t it? And that’s just the back-story to The Price of the Stars, the first book of the Mageworld series. The actual story in the novel concerns the couple’s three children…
Beka Rosselin-Metadi is a starpilot aboard a tramp freighter, but her mother is Domina of the destroyed world of Entibor and her father is Commanding General of the Republic Space Force. She wants nothing to do with her family, so she’s surprised when her father turns up at the frontier planet on which she’s just landed with his super-fast merchant, Warhammer. He tells her that her mother, the Domina, has been assassinated while speaking to the Senate… which means Beka is now Domina. She refuses the role – she left home to avoid becoming it. Her father makes an alternative offer: he will give her Warhammer to use to find out who ordered the Domina’s murder, and afterwards Beka can keep the ship.
All goes well for a short while: Beka hauls a few small cargoes, makes a small profit, asks a few questions… but then a contract is put out on her. She’s saved from a pair of paid assassins by a mysterious old man she calls the Professor (the only name to which he answers throughout the entire novel). She takes him on as co-pilot, and he shows her his secret asteroid base, with its well-outfitted hangar and luxurious quarters. He explains that he once served her family, but even though he retired he feels he still owes her his oath.
Meanwhile, Beka’s big brother, Ari, seven-foot of muscley Space Force medic on a frontier world, is dealing with an outbreak of a disease never seen there before. He asks the local contact of the Quincunx, the galaxy-wide smugglers’ organisation, for medicine Space Force cannot supply, inadvertently saves the smuggler from some paid assassins, gets his medicine, and is also made an honorary member of the Quincunx.
There’s a third brother, Owen, who is an Adept in the Guild, which are sort of monks with special powers, a bit like, well, the F*rce. Owen only pops up now and again in the narrative, usually to offer intelligence.
Beka and the Professor stage a crash to convince everyone Warhammer is destroyed and she is killed. She then re-appears in male guise as Captain Tarnekep Portree, freebooter and assassin, in a merchant ship that looks just like Warhammer but has a different name. Beka now has the freedom to continue her investigation without being hounded by assassins. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go precisely as planned and Ari, plus two of Ari’s colleagues, Lieutenant Nyls Jessan and Adept Llannat Hyfid, end up joining Portree’s crew.
Various clues lead them to suppose their mother’s murder was paid for by a powerful industrialist family which is trying to arrange for the planet Suivi Point to leave the Republic. But it all seems too obvious, and further digging – involving run-ins with assassins, a fierce firefight on a frontier world, and the kidnapping of the head of a banking clan at a posh reception while disguised as an exiled royal family – eventually lead Portree et al. to one of the most powerful men in the Republic. And it looks like he has ties with the Mageworlds. An attempt to infiltrate the man’s personal planet and take him prisoner provides The Price of the Stars final action-packed quarter…
The Price of the Stars is hardly great literature. It reads like an unholy marriage of Star Wars, Mission: Impossible and EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Initially, its inspirations are far too obvious, and its world-building far too identikit – I still fail to understand why writers of space operas feel it’s acceptable to feature slavery, or why they think civilisations which can colonise thousands of worlds are incapable of maintaining law and order on them. In fact, the villain’s world, Darvell, is painted as some kind of hellhole because it’s orderly and well-regulated. Unfortunately, instead of reading like an analogue of the USSR, it comes across as a pleasant and civilised place. Space opera politics have always been firmly stuck on right-wing/libertarian, and The Price of the Stars certainly doesn’t buck the trend…
The book is a fast and entertaining read. It doesn’t challenge tropes or prejudices. After fifty pages, I had no intention of reading any further books in the series, but by the time I’d finished The Price of the Stars I quite fancied trying the next book. Beka/Portree is an interesting protagonist – and female leads in space operas are still uncommon even now, twenty-four years after this book appeared. True, the story’s universe wears its inspirations a little too openly, and what hasn’t been repurposed from assorted popular intellectual genre properties has been lifted straight out of science fiction’s central casting and used furniture… but the plot is pretty relentless and the various set-pieces are handled with economy.
The Price of the Stars is a space opera for a wet Bank Holiday Monday, when it’s best just to go with the flow and not think too hard. Keep your expectations low and you’ll probably not be disappointed.