Juliette Wade’s Transgressions of Power effectively tells the story of a 1st Global Family in an alien human alternate world of underground cities, strict caste systems, and a civilization slowly crumbling.
Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power introduced us to the Varin .They are as human as you and I, in a different world where humans live mostly in underground cities. The surface world is a dangerous, scary place full of dangers and so it is better to live underground, even if Pelismara and the other cities of the Varin are strict, caste based cities, where the city and society are starting to fray, and where power politics and ambition are threatening to reshape a society on the edge. Transgressions of Power continues that story, more than a dozen years after the first novel, and with new points of view to develop the worldbuilding and characters.
Some things are still the same. Target is still the central character and central point of view. He is the heart of the previous book and this book, although this book feels more of a power sharing arrangement with the other characters. A dozen years or so with his younger brother as Heir, and powerful in the government of the Grobal caste of the Varin have changed Tagaret into someone looking for escapes, be it the boundaries of caste (see the title of the novel) or just to find a berth or a position outside of the city of Pelismara itself to get away from the pernicious influence of Nekantor. We get Della as a point of view here, for the first time, and we see things from a different perspective. The time since the first book have not been good for Della even with her marriage to Tagaret. She has failed repeatedly to carry a child to term, a heavy burden on her in a world where the Decline of the Grobal caste is a front and center concern. Even with Tagaret’s attempts to combat the disease that inflicts his caste, the Grobal Decline is a very real thing, and the burden of expectations weighs heavily on her.
Also burdens of expectation weigh heavily on the newest and youngest brother to Tagaret and Nekantor, Adon. Adon is now of an age that Nekantor was in the first book, and with just the right push Adon could be used by Nekantor to cement his power for an additional generation. Adon wants none of this and we get a one way escape option for the Grobal through his eyes. Adon’s attempts to rise to the challenges surrounding him are an echo and call back of the same themes we saw with Tagaret in the first book, complete with being opposed to Nekantor’s plans for him. Nekantor is not a point of view character in this book, however, and so he comes off, quite deliberately I think, as a villain through and through. Oh I understand and any reader will understand what he is doing and why he is doing it. This is not a villain who does things “for the lolz”, Nekantor, as they say, Has a Plan. With the Grobal and the Varin in general in such straits, Nekantor has definitely ideas and plans on what that Plan should be, and the Gods help you if you are in their way.
And this brings us to Pyaras. Cousin to Nekantor and Tagaret, we got a look at him in Mazes of Power, but here he is “promoted to titles” and given a large section of the point of view. Pyaras comes off for a lot of the book as “upper class twit” in a textbook example of the form. His story is about learning better, and eventually doing better. I was dubious about him at the beginning of the book, but he does go on a journey of character that redeems and strengthens him by the ed of the novel.
So as in the previous novel we also get a look at a caste and a point of view from that cast. This brings us to Melin, of the Arissen, Officer Caste. Her story intersects with Pyaras, of course, and Melin learns quickly that getting caught up in the affairs of the Grobal is a pretty hazardous line of work. Given that her main job of guarding plantations on the surface from attack by dangerous lifeforms, which she loves (perhaps irrationally for a culture preferring the underground) , this is saying quite a lot. Her story and arc is one of discovery and learning about how the people who run her society really are and what they do. There is more action scenes in this book than in the first, and Melin is in the center of most of them, including a tense set piece of trying to hustle someone across the city while assassins are on the hunt.
The world building and the plot come from the characters here. The author is not for ten pages of world infodumping, it is using the characters and their actions to bring aspects of the world into play. We find out, for example, a lot about how paper works in this society, how precious it is and how nearly every character in the book is connected to its manufacture or its sale and distribution. Just how paper could work in a society mainly living underground is a question that appears to have fascinated the author, and that fascination infuses the book.
My major criticism of the book is that despite attempts to do so, especially with the time jump, the book doesn’t quite stand on its own for new readers. Readers who are new to the Varin world are going to miss some key aspects that aren’t recapitulated for new readers directly. A lot is, mind and there is enough catch up in terms of plot that you can follow what happened in the first book pretty easily (plot being relatively straightforward and not, for me the reason for reading these books--setting and character are). There is an interesting bit of remove, seeing the plot from a dozen years in the future, and how the characters think on those events and how they have been shaped by them (as especially seen in Pyaras above).
Still, this is a book nearly equal to the splendid nature of the first, and readers of the first novel (and you really should) will find much to love here, in terms of characters, world, and setting. The plot as in the first one is not the strength of these novels, it is an emergent property of the characters and their motivations, hopes, desires, and very importantly in this book, fears.
Baseline Score: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 for strong character driven drama and worldbuilding, a real strength of this author.
Penalties: -1 The novel does not stand alone, despite its efforts to do so.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10: Well worth your time and attention
POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.
Reference: Wade, Juliette. Transgressions of Power [DAW, 2021]