This is a loose sequel to The Sky People -- same universe, but different main characters. Reading The Sky People first is not necessary. (This book does include spoilers for the earlier one, though, so reading in order is somewhat indicated.) It is a complete story in one book.
This is a rip-roaring B-movie adventure story, set in an updated-for-a-new-generation classic Mars of deserts and canals. There's a lot of really nice bits of detail in the world building, moments that just make me go "that's so COOL!" The characters are a little bit larger than life, and a little bit depth-challenged, but sympathetic enough to be engaging, and the hopeless romantic locked up inside me got all mushy over the love story. The plot is a little weak; things are just a little too predictable. And there are a couple of nits I could pick, since they poked into my suspension of disbelief a bit. But some of the images he gives us of what really advanced biotech could be like really activate my sense of wonder.
8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
Mars has had a planet-spanning civilization with technical capability roughly similar to our world today, but based on bio-engineered organisms rather than fossil fuels and manufactured gadgets, since before humans discovered graffiti, but the civilization is collapsing as the planet dries up. Jeremy, our Hero, is an archaeologist who's drawn the task of trying to locate a lost city. He hires Teyud, a mercenary, who just turns out to be the illegitimate daughter of the aging Tollamune Emperor, the Crimson King of the title, though in this benighted age he no longer rules the whole planet. In fact, the Emperor only rules his own court and city-state by being good at intrigue. His enemies have discovered that Teyud carries his genes, and they seek to either eliminate her or to control her genes. Genetics is important because the Imperial regalia is keyed to it. Some adventures ensue, Jeremy and Teyud save each other in some narrow escapes, they begin to fall for each other, and they discover a critical piece of the imperial regalia that has been missing for 6000 years, and whose disappearance is probably the reason that the planetary empire collapsed and maybe the reason civilization is failing at all. More exciting narrow escapes, as the prince who wants to extract Teyud's ovaries captures Jeremy when he jumps into a net meant for her, and she is then captured by agents who turn out to be her father's. One of Jeremy's jailers turns traitor and springs him, but he gets caught again, tortured, and is used to bait Teyud into one-on-one negotiations. The prince treacherously uses the occasion to infect her with a mind control parasite, but the strength of True Love and the power of the Invisible Crown win out and she uses the Crown to make the traitor prince die. The old emperor dies, Teyud assumes the throne, and Jeremy becomes her consort. Then the gods who are running the whole show put in an appearance at the end and open a huge gate, miles across, to a wetter, more fecund world with life apparently compatible with earth's and Mars. At the same time, a similar gate appeared on Earth into an apparently untenanted but move-in-ready Dyson sphere. There would be plenty of room for more adventures in this universe, but Teyud and Jeremy are well enough set that we can just say And they lived happily ever after, the end."
Finally, I'll close by just listing a few of the nits I have to pick.
- A hydrogen filled airship cannot explode like a bomb. The hydrogen does not require a special catalyst to keep it stable; disabling this catalyst and striking a spark will not threaten nearby craft. Not a big plot point, but it annoys me that hydrogen airships (a really cool technology) keep getting bad press (when they get any press at all)...
- As a bit of a game design geek, I'm a little frustrated by atanj. We're told enough about how the game is played that I feel convinced that it can't possibly work that well as a game. When the game is so much of a metaphor for Martian society and culture, it grates to hear details about the game that don't seem to quite work. In particular, dice have no place in such a deep and significant game of strategy. The story critical part about how any game piece can be bribed to switch sides at any time is a bit hard to imagine working as an actual game mechanic as well.
- They're such a beautiful image that I want them to be valid, but could birds big enough to carry passengers actually fly (and do aerobatics while carrying people) in 400 millibars of atmosphere and Martian gravity?