If you like epic space opera with imaginatively detailed world-building and a focus on characters rather than gadgets, try In Conquest Born, C.S. Friedman’s extremely impressive first novel. This complex, sprawling story begins with the births of two enemies-to-be from two different worlds that have been fighting each other for generations:
Zatar, a Braxin, is bred for beauty and aggression because those are the qualities his brutal, elitist, and misogynist culture admires. Ruthless, clever, and perfectly poised, he is preparing himself and his world for his ascendancy to a throne that does not yet exist in his oligarchic government. Part of making himself most qualified for this potential position involves manipulating, discrediting, or simply getting rid of any man who might stand in his way. (Women are no threat in Braxa… or are they?)
Anzha is an outsider in her Azean society because of her red hair — it’s an indication of foreign blood somewhere in her lineage. Nonetheless, her psychic powers, which are revered in Azea, are strong and that, along with her unrelenting drive to prepare herself for revenge against the Braxin man who killed her parents, causes her to rise up in the Azean military ranks. When Zatar and Anzha finally meet, they each know they have met their match, and they immediately set out to destroy each other.
C.S. Friedman began building her worlds while she was in high school and continued developing them for years before submitting In Conquest Born to DAW. It shows. The world-building is excellent — both the Braxin and Azean societies (and others) are deeply explored from multiple perspectives. Among other things, each has its own art forms, attitudes toward women, sexual preferences, inherited strengths and weaknesses, and ideas about genetic manipulation and psychic abilities.
Friedman explains on her website that In Conquest Born originally began as “a collection of interconnected stories” which she developed into a novel which was partly re-written when her editor encouraged her to make the tale less “fragmented.” Still, the story feels somewhat disjointed because it covers a huge span of time (it’s a long time before Zatar and Anzha actually meet) and each chapter is a vignette told from one of several perspectives. This technique is advantageous in that it allows us to thoroughly explore Friedman’s worlds, but has the disadvantage of causing us to spend a lot of time with minor, and often expendable, characters. (But then, Zatar and Anzha are repulsive enough that it’s nice to have a break from them.)
Friedman’s plot is exciting — there’s political intrigue, treason, space battles, torture, planet explosions, and horrible deaths. The compelling plot is made even more readable by Friedman’s pleasantly sophisticated writing style which contains just a touch of black humor. She gives us lots to think about, too — nature vs. nurture, free will, parallel evolution, genetic modification. If I had liked her characters better and had been effortlessly carried along by a more cohesive plot, I’d have surely given In Conquest Born my highest recommendation. I have no doubt that C.S. Friedman has the skill to write a perfect novel and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s version of In Conquest Born which was read by Joe Barrett. He gives a very nice reading which is not overly dramatic. His female voices sound much like his male voices, so a couple of times I assumed a newly-introduced female character was male until I was corrected by the text. Once I knew not to expect Mr. Barrett to use a feminine-sounding voice, I had no problem with his reading.
In Conquest Born, first published in 1986, was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. A sequel, The Wilding, takes place generations later.