Audiobook Review: Behind The Throne by K.B. Wagers
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Indranan War
Publisher: Hachette Audio (August 2, 2016)
Length: 13 hrs and 34 mins
Narrator: Angèle Masters
This was a tough one to rate. I devoured this one, so you know I really enjoyed it and I want to make that clear. It was quite different from what I expected though, perhaps more political in nature than action and adventure-oriented, and calling it “Star Wars-style science fiction” might be a bit of a stretch. Still, Behind the Throne is a special kind of gem, and would appeal to readers who appreciate story structure, unique cultures, royal court intrigue, and subverting tropes. It’s also a fast and fun book, gradually building and hooking you in by degrees until it’s impossible to tear yourself away.
First things first: score one to this book for starring a gun-running smuggler princess. Twenty years ago, Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol ran away from home and took to open space, sloughing her royal identity for a new one in order to hunt her father’s killer. Even though her mission ultimately failed, she’s never looked back, opting instead to travel the galaxy for reasons only known to herself, becoming one of the empire’s most notorious gun smugglers in the process.
However, that life suddenly comes crashing to an end when Hail is intercepted by elite Trackers and forced to return home to her family. Or what’s left of it. It turns out, her sisters and niece are dead, likely victims in an assassination plot, leaving Hail her mother’s sole remaining heir to the Indranan throne. With no other choice, Hail reluctantly takes on her new responsibilities, if nothing else because she is determined to hunt down those responsible for her sisters’ deaths. Later though, she finds that being Heir Apparent is even more dangerous than gun-running. Secrets and shadowy plots and lurk everywhere beneath the surface, and to make things worse, Hail discovers that her mother the Empress has been afflicted by an incurable illness that will soon force her to give up her rule. As Hail struggles to insert herself back into court life, she finds she has become a target of assassination herself, making her quest to uncover this conspiracy all the more urgent.
Despite the publisher blurb describing this as an action-packed space opera, I would caution against going into this expecting lots of space battles, raucous adventures and daring exploits. There is some of that, but it comes mostly at the end. I would say the second part of that blurb promising “courtly conspiracy” is probably more accurate. That’s not to say that the action and all-out galactic war won’t come in the next book, because I honestly feel the story is building towards that direction, but this first installment is primarily focused on politics of the royal family.
Some might hear this and feel reluctant to give this book a try because they think politics are dull. While I concede that some political science fiction can be very dry, I can assure you this is not the case with Behind the Throne. To the novel’s credit, the story is very engaging, featuring the juiciest kind of court intrigue as you can imagine—betrayals, assassinations, secrets, scandals and the like. The world-building is also handled deftly by Wagers, who infuses her universe with enough culture and history to give the conflicts within these pages significant context. Everything feels rich and connected, making me feel that these characters really matter, or that what happens in the story can indeed have a great impact on the rest of the galaxy.
This is also a very character-oriented story, written in the first person perspective so we’re given a front row seat to all that is going on. I confess I did not warm to Hail right away, in part due to her tendency to get overwrought or melodramatic when she reacts to any kind of news. Wager’s exaggerated writing style may have something to do with this, as there were quite a few hammy descriptions in the intro lone where the world always seemed to be crashing down around our heroine, or the air was constantly being sucked out of her lungs. However, I gradually came to look past this as the plot progressed, following Hail back to her home planet with her Tracer escorts Emmory Tresk and Starzin Hafin. I liked how her relationship with the two of them slowly evolved from open hostility to mutual trust, as Hail quickly comes to realize who her true friends are in a court full of hidden traitors and groveling two-faced sycophants. Standing in defiance to all those who doubt her, or think less of her because of her criminal past, Hail proves to everyone that she can be a strong and effective ruler who cares for her people.
Audiobook Comments: I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to review the audio edition of Behind the Throne. As audiophiles well know, one of the biggest downsides to listening to speculative fiction books in this format is the inability to know how to spell any of those crazy fantasy and science fiction names! In addition to the world and characters of the Indranan War series being heavily inspired by Indian culture and mythology, there are also other names of people, places, technology, ideas, and other space-faring societies described in this book that I had to look up in a print version to know how to write them correctly. It’s not really a huge problem for me, but if you know that this is something that frustrates you, it might be worth picking up the hardcopy.
As for the narration, I thought the reader Angèle Masters delivered an impressive performance, especially as she had to maintain an accent through the entire book. That said, it was not always consistent, and there were inconvenient moments where this was distracting. These are definitely things to consider if you have the choice between print and audio, and depending on your preferences, your mileage will vary. As for myself, I found it enjoyable enough, and probably won’t rule out the possibility of tackling the next book in this format as well.
Bottom line, I had a great time with this novel, despite going in with very different expectations. I think the next book will be more in line with what the book description advertises, with more action and adventure featuring our protagonist relying more on her experiences from her old gun running days to save the empire. I look forward to the sequel After the Crown to see what new tale K.B. Wagers has in store for us.