Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers is one of the best science fiction debuts I’ve read in a long time. It starts with a bang and keeps up a full-throated roar the entire way.
Hail Bristol is a gunrunner who is both respected and feared. She’s also the heir to the throne of the Indranan Empire which she fled in order to take charge of her own life. Now her crew is dead, her ship disabled and she’s being dragged back to become the thing she most wanted to avoid. With her sisters dead and her mother in declining health, Hail must take her place as heir to the throne. The only problem is, people aren’t done trying to kill her yet.
Wagers characters are instantly relatable and likable. Along with Hail, the trackers-cum-bodyguards Emory and Zin make up a strong trio. You get an excellent sense of the characters quickly and they continue to add depth throughout the novel. The return to the palace adds several more characters who up the intrigue as Hail tries to figure out who to trust and who is behind the conspiracy to murder her family and destabilize the empire.
Behind the Throne does a good job of mixing action and intrigue. One of the most impressive things at work here is the world building. Not only do you get to see the beginnings of how the empire works, but you get a glimpse into how it came to be. There are several interesting social constructs in play, but they are layered into the background rather than thrust right in your face. This is a female dominated society with a ruling class and only token acknowledgement of democracy. There are segments of society who want a more full-fledged democracy to replace the hereditary rule. In addition, there is a long-standing but fragile peace treaty with other worlds and the complications that brings with it. There isn’t excessive hand-wringing about these issues; they come up matter of factly and are dealt more in terms of how they impact the crisis at hand. As this is the first book in a series, there is plenty of time to explore this society as needs warrant.
The book has plenty of exciting action sequences along with a generous helping of intrigue that keeps the pages flying by. It’s a self-contained story while also setting up a universe and characters that you’ll want to see more of. I’m on board for whatever comes next. Behind the Throne is one of my favorite reads of the year. Highly recommended!
I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.
Description: Hailimi Bristol escaped from the suffocating court life of Indrana at the age of 19 and changed the course of her life. She became a universally feared gunrunner and, eventually, captain of her own ship. Twenty years later, though, her life is turned upside down by the death of her best friend and lover, the destruction of her ship, and her own effective kidnapping by Royal Trackers tasked with bringing her home. But why? After twenty years?
Because Princess Hailimi Bristol is the only remaining heir to the Indranan throne.
Her sisters have been killed and her mother is ill. Is it a plot by Indrana’s enemies to restart the war that killed her father? Or is it a cabal of men from within Indrana’s own matriarchal society seeking to change centuries of rule by women? For on Indrana, men are second to women and not all are as accepting of that as they seem.
Caught in a whirlwind of plots and assassination attempts, poor Hail longs for the “simple life” of running guns and smuggling. But she can’t run back to that old life. For if she runs away again, Indrana will enter an unnecessary war with the neighboring kingdoms, millions will die, and the Bristol name will disappear forever.