REVIEW: Seven Devils – Laura Lam and Elizabeth May

Seven Devils

Author: Laura Lam (website / twitter) and Elizabeth May (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Science fiction, space opera

When Eris faked her death, she thought she had left her old life as the heir to the galaxy’s most ruthless empire behind. But her recruitment by the Novantaen Resistance, an organization opposed to the empire’s voracious expansion, throws her right back into the fray.

Eris has been assigned a new mission: to infiltrate a spaceship ferrying deadly cargo and return the intelligence gathered to the Resistance. But her partner for the mission, mechanic and hotshot pilot Cloelia, bears an old grudge against Eris, making an already difficult infiltration even more complicated.

When they find the ship, they discover more than they bargained for: three fugitives with firsthand knowledge of the corrupt empire’s inner workings.

Together, these women possess the knowledge and capabilities to bring the empire to its knees. But the clock is ticking: the new heir to the empire plans to disrupt a peace summit with the only remaining alien empire, ensuring the empire’s continued expansion. If they can find a way to stop him, they will save the galaxy. If they can’t, millions may die.

This book originated between the two authors as “Mad Max: Fury Road in Space”. It’s definitely that, but also so much more. There’s the anger and aggressive fight for freedom and self-definition that you can find in Fury Road; but there’s also some of the shameless glamour and style that made me think of Jupiter Ascending, in particular the way the beauty and the aesthetic is linked completely with violence and conquest. The brutal conquerers are surrounded by beautiful things, the people they oppress are scrabbling to get by.

It’s hard to know where to start, there’s so much crammed into this story that I loved, and I didn’t necessarily notice it all at once, it was only as I got over my delight at one part that the next part filtered through to catch me by surprise again. The first was how much I liked the borrowing of words from the Roman Empire for roles within the Tholosian Empire. That was a nice touch – Empires throughout history have tried to use Roman iconography to try and get themselves aligned with Julius Caesar and his ilk in the history books. From Emperor Napoleon and his eagles, to Hitler and Mussolini using Roman standards and the fasces (bundle of sticks) symbols. This is the first bit of foreshadowing we get, the Tholosions aren’t benevolent rulers, they’re fascists.

What Seven Devils gives us is a fascist, war-mongering empire that has been in power for literally centuries and is successful. With the added strength of SF technology, they have been able to literally erase other races from existence as they have spread their influence from planet to planet. They have sterilised their society so they can completely control the gene pool of their citizens through genetic engineering, breeding people in vats designed specifically for each role. People are commodities to the empire, and made more so by an in-depth regime of brainwashing and a digital brain implant that controls their thoughts and their hormonal responses – if someone attacks a solider of the empire, the chip will override their adrenaline and drive them to superhuman feats of violence in the name of Tholos.

We’re then given a disparate group of rebels: two who are old-hat members of the Novantae, former friends and current rivals; three who are brand new escapees who just want to make it safely into hiding and learn to live on their own; and one accidental recruit who it’s never clear if you can trust thanks to the circumstances of his recruitment.

There are other nods to classical history too, particularly with Eris’ names and the fantastic deeper meaning behind it that gives some very neat foreshadowing to her role and what it could mean for the future, which made me look more closely at the other names. Eris, Greek goddess of discord and strife, and the instigator of the Trojan War. Ariadne, the girl who helped Odysseus solve the labyrinth. Rhea, the titan of the Earth and mother of the Olympian gods. Nyx, the goddess of the night, so powerful that even Zeus feared her. Cato, the Roman senator, a former solider who fought against corruption. Cloelia, a girl used as a bargaining chip in a truce between Rome and Clusium, and whose bravery earned her high honours. And Damocles, the famous king over whom death hovered every day. There are deep themes here, and they’re so carefully woven.

These two authors are absolute powerhouses of attention to detail. There are so many little parts in this that I enjoyed, showing all the levels of conquest and colonisation. One little scene was a flashback to Clo and her mother. Clo’s natural dialect is based on Scots-Gaelic, and it works so well, and also fits the delightful slang they’ve given her that is all based around bogs and marshes to reflect the environment of her home planet. Clo confidently and proudly uses her dialect, but her mother corrects her to speak “Imperial”. To force her natural speech down and form her words in the way her oppressors will approve of. This sort of linguistic control has been seen throughout history, and in particular in the British Empire. The “othering” of a subsection of society through the way they speak creates a disconnect between social groups and can have wide ranging, and long-lasting effects. It’s a key form of control, and seeing it acknowledged here, even as a tiny aside in another scene because it’s so ingrained into the society of the characters, really stuck with me.

Lam and May have both been clear that this is a Very Gay Book. And it is! But it’s not just a Very Gay Book. There is a lot of representation in here. There’s a trans character, a disabled character, an autistic character, various characters from different ethnic groups, and a very cute WLW love story. The representation is all explicit, clearly signposted (nothing that could be hand-waved away or retconned in later), but also described as naturally as one would describe hair colour, unlaboured. Everything is given its place in the plot and story, and handled thoughtfully. How do these things impact the characters? The story?

Because this is the first of a duology, it doesn’t have a simple ending. Instead, it starts to set things up for part two, and with the way things are left at the end I expect the next instalment to be even more brutal. This is truly epic in its scope and its execution, and I can’t wait for part two to see how it’s all pulled together.

Briefly:

  • A high-stakes space opera, that doesn’t shy away from brutality on both the macro and micro scale. As this is the first in a duology, however, there’s no clean resolutions at the end – brace yourself!
  • Potentially some trigger warnings to keep in mind for an abusive parent to the extreme, and allusions to sexual assault. One of the characters is a former “courtesan”, but she’s very much a slave. That said, there are no direct or explicit threats of sexual violence in the book, but there is plenty of general violence.
  • “Seven devils” is used as a cuss in the book, as in “what the seven devils?” The book is essentially titled “Fuck” and if that isn’t a 2020 mood then I don’t know what is.

5/5 – This book probably illustrates how so many people feel right now, like they’re a small person fighting against overwhelming odds. I wouldn’t say this book alone gives you hope (I’ll wait on the sequel for that), but it taps into anger and redirects it from giant nebulous things outside, to specific injustices and characters in a book. I felt like I’d been gut-punched when I finished it, but I also felt a little lighter.

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