Good Men and Monsters
AFTER THE NEBULA AND HUGO, THE PROMETHEUS Award is one of the oldest and most enduring fan-based awards in Science Fiction. Established in 1979, the award has been presented annually since 1982 at the World Science Fiction Convention. Nominees must dramatize the conflict between individuals and coercive governments, champion human rights, promote personal and economic liberty, explore a free future, or critique the tragic consequences of abuse of power, especially by the State. Sarah Hoyt’s “Darkship Thieves” won the 2011 Prometheus Award in Reno, and “A Few Good Men,” the third novel in this series, has been short-listed for the 2014 Hugo in London.
On the dystopian Earth of this novel, the ruling party—inaptly known as The Good Men—are killing millions with carefully engineered “natural” disasters. Homosexuality is a crime. The son of the Good Man of Olympic Seacity is barely holding onto his sanity after fourteen years in a prison so deep underground, so secret, few even know it exists. The son is gay, but Luce Keeva has been jailed for worse things. And things are so rotten in Olympic Seacity, it’s time for a revolution.
“The world celebrates great prison breaks,” the story begins, but people forget that for all the innocent, aggrieved, tortured and oppressed who are set free, so are a lot of con artists, rapists and murderers. Not to mention “Monsters like me,” our protagonist reminds us. “My name is Lucius Dante Maximilian Keeva, Luce to my friends, though I killed the last one of those fourteen years ago.”
It’s a diabolically funny and frantic opening chapter, with an extraordinarily tall, strong, self-deprecating monster of a protagonist. I braced myself for another novel full of carnage and endless armies of mooks falling in pools of blood, and was pleasantly surprised that battle scenes are few and not too graphic.
After a cataclysmic prison break, Luce and his unexpected liberator, Nat, who doesn’t even like Luce, are drawn into an alliance. A conspiracy hundreds of years in the making is about to be crushed, if Luce ever gets past the horrifying secrets he keeps uncovering about his family, and if Nat can keep himself from hating the Good Man/Bad Boy whose life he’s forced to protect.
Luce comes into his inheritance as a lonely, bitter felon full of guilt, self-loathing, and reluctance to take the reins. His father and brother have been murdered. Forced into a leadership role over various factions of Good Men, without any training in how to rule, he relies on his father’s right-hand man, Sam, who happens to be Nats father. With the help of Sam, Nat, and Nat’s siblings, Luce navigates the paperwork and machinations of power, the personalities and responsibilities. He must gain trust, build alliances and reconnect the disparate parts of his father’s household and political domain. His life is in more danger now than when he was a prisoner. Peace and security have never looked so elusive. And so many people have never looked so much alike. With his best friend and former lover Ben dead at his own hand, Luce is haunted at how much Nat (Ben’s nephew) and the siblings remind him of Ben. They’re not the only ones. Luce, his dad and brother could have passed for twins if their ages aligned, and other Good Men look just like their fathers.
The horrifying secrets in the family tree are beyond anyone’s ability to repair. Luce is faced with bigger, more immediate concerns, like how to keep himself and all his household alive. Rival families are fighting for control of the seacity. Worse, a worldwide conflagration looms—a Revolutionary War bigger than the one in 1776. A secret, legendary rebel group, Sons of Liberty, may be Luce’s only ally. To win their support, though, Luce is supposed to pledge allegiance to a God he doesn’t believe in, and human rights that never did and never will exist. While in prison all those years, Luce read a lot of 20th and 21st century history books, so he can quote the likes of James Madison with ease: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
The novel morphs into a history and political debate, with more quotes from the Founding Fathers, which the Prometheus judges and fans of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness will enjoy. Indeed, there was less action and more discussion of democracy and U.S. history than I’d expected. Fans of hard science fiction may want to skip the sections on democracy and … let me see how Madison put it … “the abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” Tricky, working that sort of thing into a space opera. But Hoyt does pull it off.
In her blog, Hoyt laments, “I expected some people would object to the character’s sexual orientation. It never occurred to me that anyone would take issue with the Usaian religion.” Hoyt blogs, “the Usaian religion was created rationally and on purpose by people who knew history … The idea was something like we all gotto believe in something. I believe I’ll create a community which will lead to a society in which eventually individual liberty can flourish.” She expands on this, then adds, “I’m not lighting candles before statues of Ben Franklin who likely would have pissed himself laughing at the idea, anyway. What I am doing is starting from an idea, and then having people behave as people …”
Her characters do act like real people, no matter how many genetic enhancements they may have or what religion Hoyt invents for them to follow. Luce shows Nat he’s more than a pampered son called to govern before he’s ready. He’s a full-fledged character, complex and unpredictable, as people will be. He’s a monster, but he wants to be decent. He hears Ben’s voice in his head and argues with a ghost, yet insists there’s no such thing as life after death. Luce trusts no one, yet Luce puts his life in the hands of those with most reason to kill him. Page after page, conflict after conflict, Luce struggles to salvage some kind of integrity, to do right by those wronged at his father’s hand, redeem himself, and protect those he would also govern. For all the abuse and betrayal he’s suffered, he is determined to do better. His father’s legacy of cruelty and caprice must end, and Luce will prove himself worthy of power and responsibility, or forfeit it. For all his failings, Luce is a good man after all.
There are good women in the novel too. Nat’s sister Abigail is a particular favorite of mine, with her skill at fighting, flying and facing any kind of danger. There are burners (futuristic weapons that I covet), and brooms (not clearly described but super-cool personal flying devices), trees that grow in space and produce power pods as fruit, interstellar ships that run on those pods, and a whole race of bad boys who escaped Earth on these things. (Did I mention I want to fly away in one of those?) And there’s this building material known as dimatough (how soon can I get some for my kitchen floor?). And all those genetically engineered traits for strength, speed and intelligence make me hope these are among the annals of science fiction ideas that eventually come true.
Sarah Hoyt has “six worlds” in her head. She’s plotting five more books that will branch off from “A Few Good Men,” so Book Three of this series will double as Book One of a daughter series, “Earth Revolution.”
“As of now I have six novels planned in that series,” Hoyt messaged me via Facebook. “Luce and Nat are so alive they’re now forcing me to write a novella.Sigh.” That story, titled “To Earth,” will likely appear in an anthology.
“The last book in the series for Earth Revolution is fully firm in my head, but I’m not sure I can reveal it because it’s going to get me killed by both sides,” Sarah told me. Without giving away anything, I’d like to say I look forward to Hoyt’s take on bio manipulation and the possibility of—all right, all right. I’ll say no more.
It’s a turbulent time. For Abigail Keeva-Remy, I mean, not for the author who is juggling all these books. Sarah Hoyt keeps delivering strong women, and I keep delivering spoilers, but the message is too important not to share: “Oh good grief, hundreds of years from now men still hold women back.” Even if they don’t mean to; even if they’re just being overly protective out of love and devotion.
“A Few Good Men” could have been more tightly edited. In a debut novel from an indie author, typos are easier to overlook than in a higher priced novel from a publishing house with paid, professional editors. This novel could have used some trimming and tightening, especially the dialogue, which was oddly truncated with hyphens, ellipses and unfinished thoughts. If it were just one character, or one family, the oddity might slide, but every character waxes incoherent. E.g., “But now our hand is forced, and of course, even if St. Cyr joins in—and I suspect—well, never mind.” I swear, sentences like that appeared on almost every page.
Minor flaws, however, didn’t detract from the overall story. The characters held my interest and kept me turning pages. Goldie the dog added a human touch, or humanizing, as did Nat’s peculiar habit of sleeping like a guard dog on the floor at Luce’s bedroom door. Then there are all Luce’s comic asides, e.g., “It wasn’t coffee. I’ve seen coffee. This looked and smelled like coffee’s big brother, the one that beat up coffee and stole its lollipop.”
Luce has countless pithy lines inspired by Ben and his irascible nephew: “Laying hands on Nat Remy would be much like laying hands on nitroglycerin: only to be attempted if one had tired of living.”
Any romance in this novel is understated and authentic, which is the way I like it, and the ending is one of the most satisfying I’ve ever read. The novel can stand alone, complete in and of itself, even as it opens the door to more. With Sarah Hoyt’s busy imagination, there is no end in sight for the Good Men, even if she does threaten to kill them off in Book Six. Wish me luck talking her out of it. Hoyt pleads innocence when readers protest bumping off a beloved character. Her response to that charge, via Facebook message:
I typed that scene, looked at it in horror and thought “nooooo” and tried to rewrite it, and it wouldn’t work. I had plans for that character. My husband threatened to divorce me.
The Hoyts are still married, however, and loyal readers of the series await more of Hoyt’s bad boys, feisty women, and Good Men.
(“A Few Good Men (Darkship Book 3),” Sarah Hoyt, Baen Books) —Carol Kean May 2014