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[Book review]: The Hidden Empire series by Jaine Fenn

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Book 1: Principles of Angels


Khesh City floats above the uninhabitable surface of the planet Vellern. It is a city of contrasts, with the rich and powerful living on the luxurious surface and the poor and downtrodden forced to live in the Undertow. The city is a democracy by assassination, where unpopular politicians can be removed by official killers known as Angels. When an Angel is brutally murdered, it falls to her nephew, Taro, to learn the reasons why.


Principles of Angels, the debut novel by Jaine Fenn and the first in her loosely-linked Hidden Empire sequence, is a far-future SF novel centred on two contrasting protagonists: Taro, a male prostitute trying to avenge his murdered aunt, and Elarn, a high-class singer who has been blackmailed into travelling to the city to commit a heinous crime. Taro lives in an underworld of crime and exploitation, but is idealistic, which leads him into becoming an agent for the Minister, the city's enigmatic ruler. Elarn is a more civilised character, out to do the right thing but trapped in a situation not of her own making, one which could have severe repercussions for the entire human race. Other major characters include the Minister himself, the Angel Nual and detective/info-broker Meraint. Fenn does an effective job of distinguishing and motivating these individuals, although the focus is firmly on the two main characters (who alternate POV chapters for much of the novel).


A thousand years before the events of the novel, mankind was ruled by an alien species, the Sidhe. Humanity broke free of their control and apparently destroyed them but, as the title of the series indicates, this may not be the case. Fenn does a good job of filling us in on this backstory by seeding the information into the text naturally, not relying on info-dumps. In doing so, she creates an intriguing universe which the reader definitely wants to see more of.


The plot unfolds at a good pace, helped by the book's relatively concise length (the novel is just over 300 pages long in paperback) which keeps events moving nicely. The writing is reasonable, though given the weird and unusual nature of the setting possibly a little too straightforward. Ultimately, events unfold in interesting enough a manner to make the sequels - Consorts of Heaven, Guardians of Paradise, Bringer of Light and Queen of Nowhere - appealing.


Principles of Angels (***½) is a decent debut novel, with well-drawn characters, a memorable setting and an interesting premise. The book suffers a little from too tight a focus on the two principals, which results in some of the more interesting side-cast being neglected, and also from a writing style that feels like it should have been bolder rather than settling for decent. It is still an entertaining book which effectively sets up a fascinating universe. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 2: Consorts of Heaven


It is a time of tribulation for Kerin. Discriminated against in her village for the circumstances of her birth, her son Damaru is skytouched and will soon be blessed by being raised to the ranks of the Consorts. Events are complicated by the discovery of an unconscious man in the mere outside the village. As Kerin helps him regain his health, his memory comes back in fits and starts...and indicates that Kerin's world and everything she knows may be a lie.


Consorts of Heaven is the second novel in Jaine Fenn's Hidden Empire sequence (which currently stands at four books, with a fifth out this year). It is not a follow-up to Principles of Angels, instead taking place roughly simultaneously with it but in a different part of the galaxy. It can be read independently of the first volume. The first novel was more overtly SF, with a dash of the New Weird added to it, but this second volume is more akin to traditional fantasy. It's set in a much more primitive world where some people have abilities that seem similar to magic.


As with her first novel, Fenn has created an interesting world based on some solid foundations, and seeing how this lines up with what was established in Principles of Angels can be fun. Also, as with her first novel, Fenn undercuts the premise and fascinating backstory with a fairly indifferent prose style. This is made even worse by featuring some considerably less-interesting characters than the first book. The major protagonists - Kerin, the amnesiac Sais and the priest Einon - have potential, but ultimately end up being fairly straightforward and predictable. The commentary on the planet's problems, such as being in the grip of a religious theocracy and its issues with rampant sexism, also disappointingly never rise above the obvious.


There are a few nice touches. A traditional SF mega-structure turns up later on in an interesting guise and, despite the primitive setting, we get a lot more information on how the basics of Fenn's SF universe work (such as how FTL is employed in the setting). But ultimately the novel, whilst certainly not disastrous, is not as engaging as its predecessor.


Consorts of Heaven (***) is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 3: Guardians of Paradise


Taro and Nual are Angels, formidable assassins who have discovered that the Sidhe - the long-defeated former slavemasters of humanity - have secretly returned and are undertaking clandestine operations against human interests. Their attempts to expose the truth to the rest of human society lead them into a meeting with Jarek Reen, a space trader who has had his own run-in with the Sidhe, and the formation of an alliance to bring the Sidhe down.


Guardians of Paradise is the third (of, currently, five) novels in the Hidden Empire sequence. The first two books in the sequence featured completely different characters operating on different worlds, whilst this third book brings them together and sees them pool resources to defeat the Sidhe. You can read either Principles of Angels or Consorts of Heaven first, but you need to have read both to fully appreciated Guardians of Paradise.


Like its two predecessors, Guardians of Paradise is entertainingly-written and is an easy read. Unfortunately, it lacks the dash of New Weird that made Principles of Angels so promising and threatens to languish at the same 'nice but unexciting' level as Consorts of Heaven for much of its length. The bulk of the book takes place on Kama Nui, an exotic water world which serves much of human space as a resort planet. Its inhabitants are restrained from killing (even during wars and political intrigue) by severe social customs, which reduces the level of tension to our characters (lessened even more by Nual's formidable powers) but does increase the plausibility that they could survive the situations they encounter on the planet (especially Taro, who is still green as grass in his role as an assassin).


Characterisation of the central trio of characters is adequate, but also a bit perfunctory. Other characters flitter in at the edges of the story (especially the Sidhe), but a major problem with the book is that there is little feeling of a bigger culture or society beyond what is going on in the plot. The worldbuilding is highly concentrated on the areas around our characters, but our knowledge of the wider human society beyond that is almost non-existent. Whilst this efficient and certainly keeps the page count down, it also harms immersion in the story.


That said, an uninspiring first half takes a dramatic upward swing once our characters move into a position to confront the Sidhe directly. A rather unexpected element of horror enters the story at this point, with the revelation that there may be more threats out there than just the Sidhe, and suddenly the story and the writing kick more decisively into gear. The final section of the book is more enjoyable than what came before, with the characters and storyline clicking more decisively, and things end on a ambiguous, disturbing note.


Guardians of Paradise (***½) recovers from a stodgy first half to become a decent, compelling SF novel. It's still a bit lightweight compared to the bigger names in the genre, but certainly there are signs of Fenn developing into a more interesting and talented author. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 4: Bringer of Light


Jarek, Taro and Nual's attempts to expose and defeat the machinations of the alien Sidhe continue. In alliance with the Minister of Vellern, their latest mission takes them to Aleph, the refuge of the male Sidhe after the devastating war with the females. However, the trio's assumption that the enemy of their enemy is their friend is soon shown to be hopelessly naive. Meanwhile, on the primitive world of Serenein, other allies against the Sidhe find their attempts to keep their people safe may soon be tested...


Bringer of Light is the fourth novel in Jaine Fenn's Hidden Empire sequence, which currently stands at five books. The series so far as been varied in quality, with great ideas often battling against so-so prose and a mixed bag of characterisation (our protagonists are well-drawn, but everyone else is sketchier). The previous book ended with a left-field revelation about a threat to humanity that dwarfs the Sidhe in magnitude that was fairly horrific and executed with deft skill. Whilst that threat is not much expanded upon in Bringer of Light, the upturn in writing quality that delivered it does at least continue through this volume.


The story is bigger this time, with Fenn juggling multiple storylines featuring established characters (Jarek, Taro and Nual visiting Aleph, Urien and Kerin on Serenein) and some newcomers as well. Ifanna's storyline on Serenein is an interesting addition to the mix, less of an antagonist than a well-meaning person drawn into cross-purposes against Kerin's goals (and from Ifanna's POV, fully understandably). All of this results in a somewhat longer book than the previous ones in the series (though at 400 pages it's hardly Peter F. Hamilton territory) and Fenn does a good job of handling the larger scope.


The previous problems in the series do remain, if less prevalently. There's too much use of modern colloquialism in the language and dialogue, which doesn't really sell the idea of the story being set seven millennia hence. There's a certain casual lightness to the story that makes it feel slight, despite some of the ideas and concepts being presented being fairly dark and disturbing. However, these issues are reduced in stature. In particular, Ifanna's story has some fairly unexpected twists and a disturbing - and somewhat tragic - ending that is a step above what we've seen previously. There's also an excellent twist at the end of the book that leaves things in a very interesting place for the following volumes.


Bringer of Light (***½) is a stronger volume in the series than what has come before, continuing to show the author's talents and confidence growing. That said, the feeling remains that the series has yet to hit its full potential. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 5: Queen of Nowhere




The Sidhe, who once enslaved and ruled all of humanity, have returned and inserted themselves into key positions of power right across human-controlled space. Only a few are aware of their return, and the data expert Bez is working hard to bring about their downfall. Her plan requires perfect timing, the recruitment of trustworthy allies and, if necessary, blackmail. But when her strongest ally apparently betrays her, Bez is left to face the Sidhe alone.

Queen of Nowhere is the fifth novel in the Hidden Empire sequence. This sequence is interesting because it tries to be a fairly tightly-serialised space opera whilst trying to make each book a stand-alone, with the focus moving between different groups of characters. Queen of Nowhere brings Bez, a fairly minor character in the earlier books, into sharp relief (Jarek, Taro and Nual, our 'regular' protagonists, are relegated to bit-players in Bez's story). Compared to the frequent point of view changes and shifting between planets of the previous volume, Bringer of Light, Queen of Nowhere benefits from a tight focus on Bez and her storyline.

That said, Queen of Nowhere also depicts events on a fairly large scale, some of them happening many light-years from where Bez is. The book's structure intercuts between Bez and brief scenes on other planets as members of Bez's network get ready for the decisive moment of action and their enemies try to protect themselves. It's an efficient structure which helps get across a big story in a modest page count.

Fenn's biggest weakness - her fairly prosaic, indifferent prose style - has been addressed, with more colour and strangeness in her descriptions. A visit to a planet with both segregation of the genders but also a relaxed attitude to sex is fairly vividly described. Her characterisation has also taken a big step forwards. Bez may be the most compelling protagonist Fenn has created so far, her very ordinariness and lack of material resources (despite her immense data-mining abilities) or superpowers being contrasted against Fenn's more familiar characters. Action sequences are handled with skill and there's a general feeling of improvement across the board.

The main weakness is that this is part of a series, despite the author's attempts to make things approachable for a newcomer. Indeed, newcomers may be frustrated by what they'll see as deus ex machina (such as Taro and Nual's Angel powers) whilst long-term readers may be disappointed by a lack of development on dangling plot threads from earlier in the series. The 'greater threat' which even dwafs the Sidhe and was introduced in Guardians of Paradise goes completely unmentioned, and there's certainly the feeling in the book's conclusion that we still have some way to go to reach the endgame, despite some elements being wrapped up in this volume.

Queen of Nowhere (***½) is, by a whisker, Fenn's best novel to date. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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