Book Review: Deck of Cards by Rebecca Lickiss

00001Before we even begin the review, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to do two things: ignore the cover, and ignore the title. Seriously. Pretend that somebody who hated the book and wanted to make sure it sold zero copies somehow got control and slapped the cover onto it.

I’ll come back to this later.

Rebecca Lickiss’s Deck of Cards is a space opera, with heavy elements of thriller and comedy of manners thrown in for good measure. Imagine early Lois McMaster Bujold, as this fits very well with Shards of Honor and Barrayar, despite being a wildly different story.

The story is also set in a very complicated world.

Five is a resident of the planet Fenris, and somewhere in the top dozen or two slots for the line of succession to the throne to rule the planet.

As the novel opens, we quickly learn that Five, whose real name is Valor, works with his siblings together to protect the youngest ones from their mutual father, Sigil. There are more than twenty siblings, nearly all called by number by their father, and the protection is needed. The opening scenes have Sigil returning from an audience with the King and taking out his fury, causes unknown, on Five’s right hand, breaking every bone in it. Five’s relative acceptance of this clearly signals that, while this attack was extreme, it was simply of a piece with all the previous treatment by his father. Further, it’s very clear that Five takes abuse on himself so that the other siblings won’t be targeted.

Almost immediately following, Five learns that he has a required audience with the King the following day, and there is a rush with the doctor to get his hand into presentable shape in time.

The audience with the King is, if anything, even more disastrous than his encounter with his father. The King tells Five that he will marry a daughter of the king of Ariel, the mysterious Princess Dedalean Leonargus, as a means of easing tensions between Ariel and Fenris, and encouraging trade.

Which explains Sigil’s vicious attention to Five’s right hand, since that’s the hand that will hold the wedding ring.

Yes, the wedding ring goes on the right hand.

Lickiss’s novel has many, many impressive accomplishments, not least of which is the detailed world-building. In this case, I’m referring to the cultures and histories of the two worlds featured, rather than the climate, geography, or other physical features.

Fenris and Ariel orbit the same star, Ariel having the much larger orbit, and according to legend, they were colonized at the same time, four hundred years ago, in a desperate last-ditch effort not to lose a revolution. We don’t get much more detail about that, but the legend includes the fact that the two worlds will unite again in a hundred years to re-take “Target”, a planet somewhere outside of the system, whose location nobody seems to know.

In the meantime, Fenris and Ariel have been at near-constant war, all the while looking over their shoulders dreading outside invasion, in spite of the fact that many (including five) don’t actually believe the legends. Five’s marriage is publicly part of an effort to reconcile the two cultures ahead of the fulfillment of the forefathers’ plans to re-take Target.

Privately, however, there is another purpose.

Five’s father, Sigil, is a wildly violent, unstable, unpredictible psychopath, as has already been established. And several people in line for the throne have died in mysterious, not-quite-provably murdery circumstances, including the King’s two sons. Sigil wants the throne, and the King knows it, but can’t move against Sigil for unknown reasons, though part of it is clearly fear.

And the secret reason Five is being sent to Ariel, along with his youngest siblings and other children currently in Sigil’s path, is to provide a safe haven for the King’s as-yet unborn son, about whom nobody knows except the King, the Queen, and now, Five. Once established, and the prince born, the child is to be sent to Ariel as a bastard child of a royal cousin, as cover. The real reason is to keep him completely out of Sigil’s purview.

Following all of this so far? Good, because that’s merely a part of the first two chapters. This is all merely set-up. I haven’t even gotten to Arielan culture, the large cast of characters over there, or the delightful interactions between the emigrants and the Arielans.

And it’s all handled magnificently, with only a few minor missteps, none of them relating to the story itself.

Lickiss handles a very, very large cast, with complicated and shifting interrelationships, in a way that makes me jealous. And once you tune into the cultures that she has built, it’s pretty much all crystal clear, except when it needs not to be, to keep the reader in suspense. She also develops two related, but markedly different cultures, almost purely through showing them to you, not lecturing the reader much at all, except when characters truly don’t or wouldn’t know things, and need to be lectured about them.

The story is engaging and interesting all the way through, leads to a very satisfying ending, and leaves the door wide open to further stories in this setting. We never find out much about Target or the circumstances that led to Ariel and Fenris being colonized, for example.

It’s all quite excellent and entertaining, and I recommend it highly.

That said, there are some minor defects, technical things really, in the story itself.

And there is also the cover, and the visual presentation of the Kindle edition of the book.

Within the story, there were a very few times where Lickiss did not signal things quite clearly enough, at least for this reader. It is, as I indicated, a masterful job of juggling a very large cast, keeping all the interrelationships straight in the reader’s head, and showing the different cultures to boot. However, a few times, she slips. There is an important conversation between Five and the King of Fenris, private, that I started out thinking was between Five and his father, because she used the King’s given name, something that had been mentioned once, I think, but hadn’t stuck in my head for some reason. That was the worst example, but there were a few other times in the book where I had to stop for a moment, go back and reread a paragraph or two, to make sure I was oriented correctly within the story. (Also, toward the end, there were a few obvious typos that pulled me out of the story briefly, simply because there had been so few, possibly none, in the early going, so they stood out.)

The title works once you have read the story, because one of Five’s idiosyncracies is that he uses a deck of cards (unique to the story and world) to play solitaire as a way of helping him sort out relationships and figure out how to solve problems between people. However, it is not a title that indicates “space opera” or “science fiction” in any way, which is why I said to ignore it. It’s not a bad title, but it fails to signal the reader what kind of story it is.

And the cover. Oh, alas, the cover.

Look, within the story, both Fenris and Ariel have strongly feudalistic tendencies, and some primitivism, such that the aristocracy live in castles, and on one planet, they are horrified at the very mention of indoor plumbing, because that might give away their real level of technology should Target attempt to invade. And no, that makes no sense, as characters in the story realize, but it’s a brilliant bit of world-building that rings true.

However, a plain picture of a castle-like structure? That, really and truly, gives you zero idea what kind of book this is. On top of which, it’s bland rather than intriguing. And currently, SF covers still tend strongly toward artwork rather than photographic realism, for obvious reasons.

So, ignore the cover, don’t let the title fool you, this is a fun, exciting space opera of a fairly unique kind, and I want a sequel, or even a prequel, dammit!

[This post was first published at According To Hoyt.]