I'm in a space opera kind of mood which, if my genre fondness holds out, means I'll probably spend the next couple of months absorbed in the genre before moving on. That means trying to find good examples from both mainstream and independent authors. While the "easy" sources like Star Trek, Star Wars, and newcomer in the Expanse are out there, I wanted to try something which was not linked to a major franchise. Steve Caldwell (The Bookwyrm Speaks) recommended I try out The Secret King series by Dawn Chapman. I'm glad he did because it was a treat.
The premise of the book is very similar to Battlestar Galactica in that a space opera civilization of Earth-descended humans must flee their colony world to return to their ancient homeland. However, it's very much in the vein of the original 1970s BSG with Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch, and Dirk Benedict versus the modern version. It also has elements of a Jack Kirby-esque universe of feuding New Gods-esque families, bloodlines, and psychic powers. There's even a few elements of the Silver Age Krypton thrown in. For those who prefer dark and gritty space opera, this is pretty much its antithesis but I'm a major lover of grimdark yet loved this work.
The premise is Kendro of Aonise is the psychic God-King of said world. Having had a vision of his planet's sun exploding, he's assembled four arks to take them to safety along with the other houses. Unfortunately, no sooner has this come out that their ancient enemies in the Zefron decide to finish their extermination by attacking their refugee ships as they flee. Kendro's life is complicated further by his wife's troubled pregnancy, a mysterious new enemy trying to usurp his throne, and (just to make things complicated) his second-in-command developing adulterous feelings for one of his men.
The Secret King was apparently developed as a TV series and it's a pity this didn't get a chance as one because the characters grow over their episodic struggles. A book isn't limited by budget, though, and I'm able to imagine the glamorous costumes and scenes hinted inside the work. It also has a nicely balanced cast with the King, his wife, their doctor, the chief of security, and other supporting cast members. There's also some nice subplots related to the fact Aonise is kind of a awful society, despite the king being our lead, since a good portion of its population are treated as second-class citizens because they weren't born with the mystical marks that unite everyone to their leader.
Kendro is a strong lead character and I was interested in his adventures despite my anti-royalist sentiments even in fiction. You can see he's just imperious enough that I buy him as the hereditary dictator of a long-line of conquerors but nice enough that I believed this was actually going to cause him trouble. I also enjoyed the romance between the King's second and his lover as that was a genuine surprise as well as not a typical lovey dovey story. No, it's a story about regret, duty, and the fact sometimes love just isn't enough.
Much of the book is concerned with the issues of surviving once they've taken off from their doomed home planet. There's numerous space battles with the Zefron, questions about using the life-force of the dying to heal those who can be salvaged, succession, as well as what point tradition may or may not serve in a refugee colony. All of these are interesting tidbits and help enrich the larger character-based stories.
I like the world building in the story as it hints and references rather than outright explains. While it's frustrating in places, we get the sense of an antique society that has existed for multiple millennium and lost its larger history. There's also a grandiosity to the characters speech and mannerisms that makes them feel larger than life. These are people who are dwelling in a somewhat Shakespearian world, which makes their brief psychic sojorn to Earth feel all the more contrasting like Tolkien's hobbits being visited by Gondorians--or people from the 1980 Flash Gordon movie.
There's some flaws in the book in the fact the first part of the book has a bit of a pacing issue until the arrival of a certain Lady (you'll know when you meet her) who brings a lot of energy to the story. There's also the fact we never really learn anything about the Zefron, who remain frustratingly inscrutable throughout. I would have very much liked to have discovered why they're so hell bent on eradicating the Aonise as we only get an answer which opens up more questions. The story could have used a bit more Dalamaar, too, as he doesn't quite solidify himself as the kind of epic evil ala Ming the Merciless or original Baltar which this kind of story needs.
Even so, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves space opera and wants a colorful fantastic story about psychics, bonds, kings, and spaceships. There's some decent action, excellent plotting, and good storytelling all around. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series and can't wait to pick up a copy.