– By Jacob Foxx –
The first novel in Rhett C. Bruno’s space opera, Executor Rising (read my review here), was Act I one of a much larger story. It laid the foundation and introduced the key players, but on its own was not a complete story. Like many serials in genre fiction, neither novel in his Circuit series stands on its own. This can be risky as many readers are not willing to read a whole epic. The larger time commitment, the higher the expectations. Bruno’s sequel Progeny of Vale succeeds in meeting the elevated expectations of an Act II. It is an exciting and smart sequel to one of the better space opera series around.
At the end of the Executor Rising, Cassius Vale initiated his plan to take down the Tribune, a theocratic power that dominated a ring of Solar System colonies, known as the Circuit. During the last battle he captures Sage Volus, a dangerous Tribune operative known as an executor. She is also his former daughter in-law. Like all executors, she was given a bio-implant that allowed the Tribune to alter her brain chemistry to dull pain and emotions, helping to make her more obedient. Cassius removes the implant, causing a flood of new sensations as well as the first true feelings of doubt in her faith. Her loyalty is shaken as she sees more of the Tribune’s hypocrisy.
Alongside Cassius is his robot creation ADIM, a powerful AI that faithfully serves him and seems to see itself as a surrogate son. On the other side of the Solar System is Talon Rayne, a former pirate and henchmen for a crime family called the Morastus Clan. He was betrayed by Sage, and imprisoned but manages to escape. His thoughts turn to revenge against Sage as well as going home to see his daughter Elisha.
Progeny of Vale has a quicker momentum than the first novel, and gives a better picture of the broader conflict. The first novel, by virtue of being the first, had to spend more time in exposition while this book let the story and characters develop much more organically. The four POVs run roughly parallel with some chapters describing the same events from different perspectives. The climax and cliffhanger are exciting and left me wanting to move on to part 3 as soon as possible.
What sets The Circuit apart from other space operas is it tends to dwell in the gray areas. The central conflict is not a clear case of good versus evil or the hero versus the villain. Cassius is as much villain as he is the hero. He is a former executor and war hero seeking revenge on the Tribune for murdering his son. He is no freedom fighter. From his words and actions he seems to be a sociopath with very specific goals, willing to do anything to achieve them. Thousands of innocent people are murdered as he carries out his plan. He has a soft spot for Sage, and his robot creation ADIM but that is about it.
You want to like Sage Volus from the start but she is not much of a hero either, at least not yet. She was largely a mind-controlled servant in the first novel, exploited by the Tribune in every way. She is an obedient weapon that kills in the name of a religion that is clearly being used as a pretense to maintain the Tribune’s hegemony. With the implant removed, you see her begin to think independently for the first time, although she is still largely a misguided warrior.
Talon and the robot ADIM are not as compelling. Talon is a little too good to be true, pretending to be an anti-hero like Wolverine or Han Solo. He has a daughter by a drugged-out hooker, is a former mob enforcer, but is totally a great guy! ADIM was interesting at times but is otherwise a conventional “robot with feelings” character. As far as compassion, it seems to have little regard for human life other than the life of its creator Cassius.
With two characters motivated by revenge, and a third only beginning to show autonomy it sounds a bit like Game of Thrones in space (without the huge cast). The Circuit is an imperfect realm ruled by imperfect leaders, with the rest of the people just trying to get by or survive. At the same time, you get the sense that Sage is in the early stages of the hero’s journey. You want to cheer for her but she doesn’t give much opportunity for it in the first two novels. I think this will disappoint some readers looking for a conventional heroic space opera.
The world-building is solid from a technological and timeline point of view, but a touch underdeveloped in terms of the political and social elements. The New Earth Spirit comes off as a knockoff of medieval Christianity, with the Tribune acting as the Church and the executors their crusaders. The Tribune, a term from ancient Rome, invokes images of imperial hegemony from antiquity that clashes with the futuristic setting. There are also several characters with Romanized names such as Cassius, Tarsis, and Volus. Humanity seems to have taken a huge step backward in the future. The inclusion of hereditary Clans was an even bigger leap backward in societal organization. Tough times after the death of Earth might’ve pressed human society into a Dark Age, abandoning all the progress of the age of the enlightenment, reason and rationality for more ancient structures such as hereditary rule and mysticism.
From a stylistic perspective, Progeny of Vale is a great read, difficult to put down. It lacks the typical sci fi blunders such as infodumping and overuse of technical jargon. Dialogue is a little cheesy at times but above average compared to contemporary space operas. The subgenre tends to be a little cheesy in general. Another cliffhanger ending may frustrate some but a third novel is fast on the way.
Overall, The Circuit is one of the strongest new space operas out there and worth picking up for fans of space opera, hard science fiction, and those who enjoy stories that aren’t black and white.
Jacob Foxx is the Editor of Prescientcifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.