On the Imperium’s Secret Service
By Christopher G. Nuttall
Published by Audible Studios
Read by Genvieve Bevier
The story starts out in a prison cell where two women have been brutalized and about to be sexually assaulted pending a life in slavery (assuming they survive that long). It was such a bad opening I nearly turned it off two minutes in and the only reason I did not was that I was driving and it’s about as safe to change to another book on my MP3 player as it would be to text while driving, so by the time I got to my destination, the story started to get interesting. Even so, I promised myself the next time the story resorted to gratuitous physical and/or sexual violence, I would delete the file with extreme prejudice.
This is Book 1 of a series called Imperium Cicernus, and before I say anything else, let me say that I do think that technically at least I think the book is well written. The dialogue flows and if the characters might have been better delineated by their speech patterns than they were, it was better than most I have read. My main complaint is that this book does not seem to have a single original idea in it anywhere.
Arthur C. Clarke said in one of his forewords or postscripts to the Rama series that he believed there were new ideas in Science Fiction (and went on to say that if there were he would have thought of them. The man did not suffer from a lack of ego…). I do not agree with him, but I certainly could not prove it with this volume. The story is loosely based on a popular view of a James Bond/Spy novel set in the galaxy (or is it the whole Universe? Several times the story tells us that Humankind controls the Universe – it seems unlikely, considering the infinite scope of the Universe…) but Mister Nuttall throws in several homages to Batman (the male lead’s spaceship is the Bruce Wayne and at one point he goes to a costume party as Batman) and even tosses in Doctor Who’s sonic screw driver. The characters look like a list of familiar SF memes and the situations they get in all seem far too familiar – standard tropes, the lot of them. So much so that there is little to be surprised about in the story. It’s a fun ride, but very predictable.
The characters? Well, as I said, they look like they stepped off a sheet of standard memes, but worse, I just could not accept any of it as real. Fitz was a just a little too good at what he did – rarely getting into trouble and when he did, he got right back out of it. The two sisters , Mariko and May are just too naïve and innocent to be believed, even though we are told Mariko is the more worldly wise one. (Hint: saying so does not make it happen. Literary characters are only as complex as complex as they behave in the story). The only thing I could believe about either of them is that they were naive enough to fall into a situation in which they were enslaved by the son of a petty government official.
The whole enslavement thing, however, felt wrong and except to flavor the porn-like opening of the book was always something well in the background. Consequently, later in the book when Mariko finds their former enslaver helpless and tied up, she simply slits his throat. Sure, a person in her position would have resented the man and might well have wanted to do that, but as written, there’s no emotional build-up to the scene. There are no nagging nightmares or self-doubts or whatever that drives her to kill the man in cold blood, she just does it and thereby loses any sympathy from this reader she might have had in the process. What could have made her a deeply complex character, instead consigned her to two-dimensional flatness. In short, there is no character development.
To be fair, SF is frequently shy of character development. This is a complaint from critics who only understand main stream literature and are not sufficiently acquainted with various genres. Science fiction does not have to have character development, but when the characters themselves do not change, in a good story, at least, they change the world around them – just the opposite of mainstream in which the world is static but the characters change. Either or both is acceptable in SF, but in this story neither change. Everything just is and the goal of the characters is to keep the Universe just as it is.
It is also a very episodic story as though Mister Nuttall originally wrote a series of short stories and then stitched them together to make this book and tossed in a final chapter just to bring it all to a conclusion. However, the good news is it does come to a conclusion; there are no aggravating cliff-hangers at the end , it does all tie up neatly. So, yes, it is well-written, but only on the technical level. The story – in spite of all the action, and the characters, who we are given backstories for – somehow still fall flat. This could have been so much better.
Genvieve Bevier puts in a reasonably good performance in this recording. She reads the book smoothly and without using funny voices and believe me, some readers would have made Mariko sound like a Hollywood version of a Geisha girl, while Fits would have sounded like a poor man’s James Bond, the aristocrats might have sounded like characters from Philadelphia Story and so forth. But instead Ms Bevier takes her job seriously and just lets the story tell itself. I enjoyed listening to her.
So we have a somewhat choppy and barely, if at all, developed story, but it is read well and was nowhere as bad as I feared from the first few minutes of listening. Whether I will go looking for the next book in the series, however is debatable.