Reclamation by Richard Swan: A Review
Self-published space opera by the fantasy master... and it's kind of great
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Assumptions are funny things. Take my reading habits. I read more self-published fantasy than traditionally published these days. Yet when I heard that Richard Swan, the irrepressibly jovial “major new voice of fantasy” behind The Empire of the Wolf series, had previously written a space opera trilogy of books that were self-published, I made some assumptions. It won’t be as good, right? It will be entertaining, but not that polished. It just isn’t going to be as good as the Justice of Kings, right? That book had the weight of trad pub and its editors behind it.
Well, as the most annoying person in the world once coined, to assume makes an ass out of u and me. Because Reclamation, the first book in the Art of War trilogy, is outrageously good. It is wildly imaginative, and features one of the best space battles I’ve ever read. And it combines a refreshing mix of action with tense diplomacy and politics that will be familiar and welcome to those who enjoyed this boundary-pushing blend in the Empire of the Wolf.
In fact, I think I enjoyed it more than the Justice of Kings. Yeah, you heard me. And that book was in my top three fantasies of last year. Do I have some explaining to do? You bet I do. Good job my reviews are longer than the Nile.
Reclamation has a fairly standard sci-fi set up. Humans have spread throughout the galaxy, the largest group represented by the United Nations, who have, fans of mid-2000s politics will be relieved to hear, survived into galactic format. They are one of six “tier three” species, i.e. the other races in the galaxy who have mastered interstellar travel and colonisation. When one of these other races, the Kaygryn, begins to attack the ships of another, the Provar, galactic war looms, and the planet at the centre of this budding war, Alternis, happens to have a human colony. Thus, the UN must intervene to try and prevent war; on the ground on Alternis, a solider and a spy team up to discover who is really behind the hostilities, while on another planet a diplomat must make a success of a peace conference where all the other tier-three species have arrived to avoid war.
The first thing to say is that Swan has clearly mastered that art peculiar to sci-fi novels of throwing a bunch of advanced tech in your face on a sentence-by-sentence basis. This is a requirement particular to space opera; where other genres parcel out their worldbuilding, in this genre it is perfectly acceptable to bombard you in the face with it constantly and, when done well, it gives the well-versed sci-fi reader a constant endorphin rush, as in the initial chapters every sentence contains about five great ideas. Swan gives particular love to the construction of ships and weaponry, and joins that rank of sci-fi writers who seem to have eaten an engineering degree for breakfast. It’s a whirlwind of ideas that immediately puts this series in the top-tier ranking.
More specifically, a great piece of tech interwoven throughout the book is the IHD, a sort of Google Glass on steroids that’s interfaced with your brain. This idea of a piece of brain kit that can control how you see the world AND how you control your own body is hardly new to sci-fi, but Swan really commits to this in an admirable way and we see not only how it operates to control external data but also how it reduces shock, controls pain, and… makes sex better (more of which later). He’s really thought about it and it’s seriously cool.
Another fun piece of tech is the Goliath mecha-suits, which I imagined as much sleeker and advanced version of Ripley’s “get away from her, you Bitch” rig in Aliens but which were probably based off something in Halo. It’s a cool piece of weaponised kit that leads to a couple of very fun scenes.
Also, every good sci-fi novel needs some bizarre injury, and when one character gets extremely badly injured in a way that would definitely be a spoiler, we get a strange and inspired virtual reality interlude as they struggle to access their memories.
Tech aside, Swan also ticks the “cool space battle” box and then some. In fact, the space battle that takes place between one large ship and three seriously unmatched smaller ones is so tense and unbelievably gripping that I can’t remember a better one. It’s an astonishing section of the book that left me breathless, and has me very excited for more throughout the trilogy. Swan knows that the secret to a space battle is not just the action but the sense of doubt amidst it: will they attack? When will they attack? In fact the best part is prior to the space battle itself, when desperate communication ends in the horrifying realisation that the battle itself is due to take place. It’s a bravura scene from (at that point) a sci-fi newbie.
What makes this first book really stand out though is the same thing that makes Justice of Kings, and its remarkable follow up The Tyranny of Faith so notable: the focus on politics, and people in rooms failing in various ways to make things better. In his fantasy series, Swan adds a legal edge to this; here it’s all abut the diplomacy. And what fun he has here. The UN diplomat Yano is tasked with trying to communicate with the militant religious arseholes the Provar at a peace treaty. Except their language is based partly on vocal modulation and tone, which is great when you have a series of specialised vocal chords like them, not so great when you’re a human. What follows is a glorious scene in which Yano attempts to communicate basic requests while they fly into increasing bouts of rage. Do they not understand, or are they just dicks? Such vagaries are at the heart of diplomacy and Swan puts just as much effort into these scenes as the space battles, making this a book for West Wing lovers just as it is for fans of the Expanse.
Speaking of the diplomat Yano, what a character. An elite, narcissistic agent, he has been genetically engineered to be able to seduce any woman and be completely charming. A sci-fi James Bond, if you will, who talks rather than shoots. Swan has a lot of fun with this, so much so you can’t help but grin as Yano uses the IHD program 2climax to make sure he... climaxes, obviously, at the same time with yet another woman he is bedding (told you I’d come back to the sex). Luckily the reader has a lot of fun too, and if it sounds a little seedy, that is the point; as one woman tells him (I may be paraphrasing) he is of course full of shit.
That said, neither he nor any of the other characters come close to the impact that his instantly iconic fantasy MC Sir Konrad Vonvalt has in his Empire of the Wolf Series. This (so far) is not really a series about character arcs; it’s about corruptive politics and subtle diplomacy and empire and big suits firing things at big spaceships and going BLAM (and that’s fine).
Finally, we must speak of the politics. Because if the first part is cool battles, and the next third is cool diplomacy, then the final third, apart from being full of twists and incredible stakes raising for the next book (that ending…) switches focus to the politics and failings of empire. This will again be familiar to fans of the Empire of the Wolf series, where a major colonial power must face up to its sins as internal factions and toxic politics tears it apart. Here, we see the full failings of the mighty UN, and get a whole heap of political allegories into the bargain. You can tell this was written in the post Iraq war landscape, as we get renditioning, torture, attempts to install exiles who promise based on faulty intelligence that they can take over the regime and install a friendly puppet regime… it’s all great fun while being an intelligent critique too.
Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed yet, this is grimdark sci-fi (if that’s a thing); so people die constantly in imaginative ways, and if you like someone’s brains suddenly exploding over everyone else in the room (and why the hell wouldn’t you?) then you’re going to love this.
Overall, this is triumphant, statement-making sci-fi that gets all the basics right while mining the possibilities for diplomacy and politics to add all the complex layering you want from epic space opera. It’s pacy and wickedly written and ridiculous amounts of fun, and I enjoyed it more than the Justice of Kings (though not it’s bravura sequel Tyranny of Faith, I'm not completely crazy) and I reckon I’ve written enough to justify that, so if that shocks you then that, dear reader, is on you.