Friday, April 29, 2022

Centireview: Inheritors of Power by Juliette Wade

The third book in the Varin sequence, brings the series to bear in its central problems and themes.

Juliette Wade’s previous Varin novels, Mazes of Power and Trangressions of Power, introduced us to the very human, but also very alien, human societies of the Varin. The Varin are an extremely caste-stratified society that primarily lives underground due to the threats on the surface, primarily the will-o-wisp like Wysps. Over the last couple of decades, as seen in those two novels, the society of the Varin have faced challenges, and a flawed and paranoid tyrant, Nekantor, has achieved the ultimate power in their society and done much to cement that power, even as his very siblings work to try and curb it. But the problems the entirety of the Varin face are not going away. 

Inheritors of Power continues the story of the Varin, but from new perspectives, and a sharp heightening of the central problems the Varin face.

Inheritors of Power’s weakness, and its strength, is that it absolutely cannot be understood on anything more than a superficial level if one has not read and grokked the previous two novels. Wade does an excellent job in making readers new to the Varin as comfortable as possible- using the classic technique of having one of our viewpoint characters (Akrabitti Meetis) be from a perspective she herself has not explored and so does a lot of heavy lifting for herself and for readers both old and new readers familiar with a slice of Varin life we’ve just never seen before. Our other primary viewpoint, Imbati Catin, is a viewpoint we’ve seen before in a secondary capacity, but we get a lot more of the Imbati perspective than we’ve seen in the previous two novels.

That all said, however, as much as Wade can prepare a reader new to the world to the complexities of the Varin and their very alien human society, this is a novel that really relies on knowledge of the previous two books, both on a high worldbuilding and also on a character level to really succeed. With the basis of that two novels, though, it is clear to me here, that this is a rich and deep and complex story that I get the feeling Wade has wanted to tell from the beginning, and from this point. 

There is a theory in writing that one of the keys to writing any work of fiction is to know where the story begins and to start the story at that point,. In some ways, the rich story of this novel, of which I will speak shortly, seems to be the story that Wade has wanted to tell since the beginning of Mazes of Power. In Wade’s case, however, and for the readers, this story only really can work as a story if you have the background of the first two novels in order to get the full force and impact of what happens here. 

In the first two Varin novels, Wade’s focus has been on the top two castes of society, The aristocratic Grobal and the militaristic Arissen. Mazes of Power introduced us to the world and society of the Varin from that elite, aristocratic perspective, Mazes of Power is in the end the story of how Nekantor gains power and becomes the head of society. We get to know him and his brother Tagaret, and see how manipulations, maneuvers and desperate gambits result in Nekantor’s ascension to Heir.  And yet the seeds that show not all is well in the world of the Varin, the deadly plague particularly is wreaking havoc on the Grobal, even as it has a much lighter touch on the rest of the population. (although the book was not written in the age of vaccine denial, I can’t help but now think of the Omicron variant of Covid and how it affects the unvaccinated versus the vaccinated). There are also hints that there are other cracks in society as well.  

In Transgressions of Power, we get to see the inflexibility of Varin society and see the smallest of safety valves--the Fall, whereupon a member of a caste can forever drop in caste to a lower caste. (the reverse *never* happens).  Pyaras story in his Fall, and why he feels that it is his own option to become an Arissen work hand in hand with Tagaret’s (and his partner Della)’s story in seeking other and new ways for the Grobal, and working toward that goal. And, then there is the “shadow” story in how Nekantor seeks to cement his power among the Grobal by jumping from Heir to Eminence, and what he is willing to do in order to do that. And then there is Adon, Tagaret’s and Nekantor’s youngest brother, and the dread secret of his true identity and nature.

All of this is necessary backstory, foundation and support to understand the plotting, maneuvering and the state of affairs here in Inheritors of Power. This carefully constructed edifice, and the plight of the Varin comes to the fore, and comes to challenge. As mentioned above, Wade does her best in setting this up for a new reader, but this book relies on the previous two novels in a fundamental way.  

Let’s take Imbati Catin for an example. Bright star of the Academy, she is recruited into a scheme to become the next servant for Adon, as a way to support him and put a check on Nekantor...or is it to put a check on Nekantor’s own servant, Xinta? Nekantor’s penchant for secrecy and power mean that what is really going on in the Eminence’s household is a black box, and the strains on the already strained Varin society are beginning to show. Something Must Be Done, and so Catin finds herself in a web of plots and power as she tries to be a loyal and well working Imbati for Adon, and yet fulfill her objectives. The strain on Catin, given her caste, given her training, are a reflection and a contrast that work best if you’ve already read Mazes of Power and have encountered Aloran and so can understand Catin much better. Having that grounding in the Imbati not only helps understand Catin’s story, but also Xinta’s. 

Xinta, as Nekantor’s servant, gets a few point of view chapters himself. In fact, Wade does a most clever thing in running sets of chapters in succession in switching points of view and following different characters and points of view, providing a good treadmill to carry the reader through the narrative. This technique means that a couple of points, we need to get into Xinta’s head, into Xinta’s point of view. Thus, we as a reader understand the whole of the Varin and what is going on much much better than any individual character, and it provides a rich tapestry. But, again, understanding Xinta and what he does without bogging down the narrative relies on having the background on Nekantor for the last two novels. There is also a subplot in this novel involving one of Tagaret’s children that only makes sense if you know about Nekantor’s disability, as seen in the first novel.  

And then there is the fragile nature of Varin society. A major theme of this novel is when the lights literally start to go out, when things fall apart and cannot be easily repaired, how does one carry on and what does it say about a society that is just trying to keep things running, and trying to stay one step ahead of entropy? Having leadership like Nekantor, having an inflexible society as developed in the first two novels only makes the problem more acute. Society is suffering both on a tangible and a sociological level. This sort of exploration is Wade’s jam and she makes a lot of good hay out of it.

Having Akrabitti characters, Corbinan and particularly our major viewpoint character of Meetis. show us the lowest rung of Varin society, one barely even mentioned in the pages of the first two novels, as focused as we were on the top three castes. The Akrabitti are an undercaste of undercastes. Even the merchant Melumalai caste, ostensibly the caste just above them, are an unapproachable gulf of power, authority and rights above the Akrabitti. We’ve seen Melumalai before, and we see here how much they are below the other castes in rank. As far below the Grobal, 5 castes above them, the Melumalai are, the Akrabitti are below the Merchants. Although we’ve seen how the Castes work in the previous two novels, having Akrabitti characters really shows the Castes and how they work. 

In addition, continuing that worldbuilding theme, we get to see how the “rest of society” gets on, society between the exalted Grobal and the low Akrabitti. This novel is the most successful yet in showing the entire spectrum of Varin society by giving us the perspectives of poor Corbinan, and more to the point, Meetis.. We’ve changed our tight lens on the top of society and their concerns, a perspective that has given us deep insight into Grobal and Imbati (and to a lesser extent, the Arissen) and now see much of the society and how it gets on--and how it, too is fraying. The sense of entropy in the Varin world, both in terms of the center cannot hold, and the weaknesses of the caste system itself, really comes to the fore from a “ground level perspective”. 

And then there is the ‘secret’.  I’ve had vague ideas about the secret for the last two novels, but only in the sense of wondering about the worldbuilding of the entire world.  (Recall, Wade’s interest in Worldbuilding is deep and abiding, having had a long running show on the subject). In this novel, a secret of that worldbuilding is revealed, a reveal that is only shocking and really has an impact if one has been immersed in this world for two and a half novels. It's an extremely tricky thing that Wade tries here, but I think in terms of the whole Varin narrative, this is the place in the sequence where that reveal makes the most sense to do it, if one is going to do it, because it really is a pivot point for the entire future of the Varin to have the revelation, here. The thing that Wade does here that requires two and a half novels to really get is not to spring this revelation on the readers, but to also spring it on the characters who discover the secret. Frankly, the power of the revelation really would not be there for the characters as filtered into the readers and how the characters deal with it, if this was the first novel in the sequence. And yet, looking back and seeing how Wade has seeded things, this revelation is what Wade has had under wraps ever since Tagaret mused about music in the first line of Mazes of Power. 

And so that is where this book sits. Wade finally reveals her ace in the hole, after two and a half books of buildup. It is, though, a reveal that only works in full if you’ve read those book, and if you haven’t, it is going to land without its full impact. 

Three books in, I find that I get the themes of the entire first three novels (and dare I say, perhaps the entire sequence), now. It’s a grand tapestry of theme and exploration of that theme that runs across characters and events in the three novels. We see it with Aloran in the first novel, in the second novel with Pyaras’ story, and the start of what Tagaret and Della are doing, and we see it here in the third novel, with Catin, Adon, and Meetis. The boundaries of caste, how levels of society are never as firm as one thinks, and what happens when those Boundaries of Power are Transgressed, from the Mazes to the Inheritors. It’s a grand theme that DOES take multiple perspectives and novels to express and I look forward to how Wade continues it in the next book. The cover artist for the three novels, Adam Auerbach, clearly gets this as well and the unity of cover art for the first three novels leans into this quite effectively.

So I find myself in the very strange position in this review of recommending not the book I read, but Mazes of Power. Things being as they are, if you’ve read Mazes of Power and Transgressions of Power, all you need to know from me is that the novel holds up those two novels and builds upon them and you hopefully preordered it already. In Nerds of a Feather terms, that’s not a Microreview, or even a Nanoreview, that’s a Femtoreview. But I think the entire Varin sequence is one of the most intriguing and important sociological SF series out there today, and I want less people to sleep on it. Inheritors of Power proves and provides Wade’s skill at bringing her world to life, and what those characters, that world has to say about its own world and our own is important and very much worth your time. 

The heart that is valiant triumphs over all.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for “The Secret”. 

+1 for a strong leveling up in showing how Varin society works, top to bottom

+1 for strong thematic resonances and continuances from the first two novels.

Penalties: -1 A couple of revelations and subplots are a bit too subtle. 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference:  Wade, Juliette. Inheritors of Power [Daw, 2022]

Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.