Book Reviews

The Betrothal at Usk (City on a Star 2) by Felice Picano at ReQueered Tales

Genre Gay / Queer / Science Fiction / Cyborgs / Other Planets / Action/Adventure / Fiction
Reviewed by ParisDude on 10-November-2021

Book Blurb

With the end of the Galactic Matriarchy, Vir’ism has risen, centered on Hesperia, the City on a Star. But one leader, Mart Kell, is out of power, while another, the Great Father, Ay’r, is quietly retired.


On a small resort planet with a rainbow of rings, Ay’r Eise’nstein-Kell, a 16-year-old boy, air skates across the sands, dreaming of escape to the famed City on a Star. When the rulers of the galaxy-wide republic and their glamorous entourages arrive on Usk to celebrate a great betrothal, Ay’r finds himself thrust into their midst but even deeper into dynastic schemes and power manipulations he cannot understand. Except when they are revealed to be perilous to his freedom and to his life.


Abused and alone, he flees with few resources but knowledge into the unique dangers of The Great Salt Ocean of Usk. There, he will find all the adventure a boy could want. He’ll also discover the plight of the oppressed worker-species, the pamps, who have long awaited their Messiah, and he will discover who he really is: could Ay’r be The One?


Meanwhile, Kri’nni, heiress to the defeated Bella=Arth. empire,escapes her long bondage and plots her return. Holt, the youngest son of the Great Father, a playboy known as “The Cadet,” flees the media circus of his life for a mission into the heart of the galaxy in search of a new source of the Beryllium ore that makes galaxy-wide communication and travel possible. What else will he find to reinvigorate the new Ib’r society?


Book Review

This first sequel to ‘Dryland’s End’ is set roughly 400 years after the victory over the Cybers, the downfall of the Matriarchy due to the Cyber virus that made all Hume and Delphinid females sterile, and the dawning of a new era based on male viviparturition (a system called Vir’ism, apostrophe included). Now, females have become so rare that they even have a galactical stock market price. One of these rare females from a rich and influential family is to be betrothed to Ay’r Eise’nstein-Kell, the pampered, surly, vaguely rebellious, pensive, and lonely sixteen-year-old descendant of the illustrous Lord Mart Kell, first Premier of the Republic that filled the political void the Matriarchy had left behind. As a social outcast—his parents’ pairing and subsequent double suicuide had been a major scandal—Ay’r has been brought up by tutors on the dusty-dry, peripheral planet Usk, one of the galaxy’s 700 wonders because of its two suns and multiple rings.

 

After the betrothing ceremony, Ay’r is seduced and bedded by a handsome young Hesperian Lord, who secretly drugs him… to allow Ay’r’s great-great-grandfather Mart Kell to rape the boy and get him with child. As soon as Ay’r regains consciousness, he stealthily leaves the palace he has grown up in and flees across the vast Salt Ocean. His disappearance triggers one of the biggest planet-wide searches Usk has ever known, but Ay’r’s persuers are unable to find him because he remains well under the radar, disguised under the planet’s traditional Betrothed’s veil, helped and supported by the planet’s working underclass, the pamps, who turn out to be the novel’s biggest surprise as a hither-to unmentioned species as well as a plot-driving character per se. Ay’r embarks incognito on a Salt Ocean cruise. Then he realizes he’s pregnant and that powerful Mart Kell probably isn’t after him but after his soon-to-be-born child. And he decides to take a stand…

 

This is but one of the threads of a novel that is rich in plots and subplots. There’s the side-story of retired Great Father Ay’r Kerry-Sanq, the first human being born by a male, whom I have followed all through book one and who inadvertedly stumbles upon the last remains of the Matriarchy. There’s Kri’nni’s story—the eccentric Bella=Arth trouble-maker who was forced to become the new queen of her species in ‘Dryland’s End’. There’s also Holt’s story; he’s Ay’r Kerry-Sanq’s youngest son, a lucky-go-happy socialite who sets out on a quest to find a new source of Beryllium 18 (the very rare element the whole galactic system is based upon; its stocks are dangerously dwindling) and who discovers an ancient and forgotten species.

 

I’m afraid I have to admit that I was rather underwhelmed by this book, despite (or perhaps because of) my sincere admiration for Felice Picano as a writer. I had the impression I was reading a mere first draft rather than a finished novel; ‘The Betrothal at Usk’ struck me not as a space opera but a space operette with elements of Medieval mystery plays mixed in. I was surprised to find a lot of inconsistencies. For example, I was allowed to meet some of the first book’s main characters again, made possible because in this universe people have incredibly long lifespans (both Mart Kell and Ay’r Kerry-Sanq must be in their 500s or 600s in this book). Not being this novel’s focus, they remained very sketchy, almost phantomatic, especially Lord Kell, and that was all right for me. What didn’t ring true, however, was his unexplained transformation from a ruthless, power-hungry, yet charming, amusing, even at times endearing schemer in book one into an undisputable, two-dimensional villain. The way he was vaguely disposed of at the end of the book was tell-tale, too: I could only presume what happened to him without actually being shown.

 

Let’s not dwell excessively on other inconsistencies (humans were called Humes in book one; they are called Humans in this book) or the really annoying overuse of apostrophed, circumflexed, bracketed names that made them nigh impossible to read and made me wonder why the author thought that, in the far future, linguistics wouldn’t follow the trend of all languages, which point towards simplification rather than entropy. Let’s look at the things that didn’t work for me in this novel. First of all, there’s the main plot: young Ay’r Eise’nstein-Kell’s story. It reminded me vaguely of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ series, especially the Messianic aspect of a savior freeing the Fremen in one case, the pamps in the other. But this aspect was overplayed in ‘The Betrothal at Usk’, even including a quasi-Nativity scene complete with celestial phenomena, naïve “shepherds”, and Magi stand-ins, which I found over the top—I had already grabbed the Messianic symbolism at that point. I also would have liked Ay’r to be more (or better) fleshed out as a character; it’s he who “carries” the weight of the main plot, after all. As it is, he seemed to be constantly acting and reacting according to a preconceived storyline (even in the romantic subplotthat linked him to his seducer) and not like an actual person one could understand or relate to.

 

Some things felt outright clumsy to me. For instance, the odd cutting-up of certain scenes. At one moment I was hiking with Ay’r through the Usk countryside, and in the following scene, all of a sudden, I found out he had been caught and was being held prisoner by rural pamps. No transition, no explanation, no showing. And the writing struck me often as clumsy, too. Way too many descriptors and adverbs, sometimes several in a row, and word repetitions that simply begged for a Thesaurus to be opened. I also have to mention the erratic use of commas, the annoying absence of hyphens, the erroneous spelling or grammar (who/whom, then/than), and the double “that”s when a subordinate clause was inserted (something like “he saw that, given one or another thing, that this happened…”), which added to the perceived clumsiness of certain passages.

 

What did work, and worked even wonderfully for me, was the secret main character, which was lushly described and shown: the planet Usk itself. Those parts where I travelled the planet, namely the Salt Ocean, by Ay’r’s side filled me with a strong sense of adventure, discovery, and freedom. They reminded me of some of the best Jules Vernes novels. I was there, I saw the surroundings not with Ay’r’s eyes, but saw them myself; I felt the winds, experienced the sparkling lights at night, suffered from the heat of the two suns, marveled at the wonderous rings rising behind the horizon. These were fabulous pieces of writing, and I would have loved the whole novel to draw me in just as powerfully. They are the reason I didn’t give up the read, and they are the reason I still somehow liked the book as a whole. One things is certain, anyway: despite everything I wrote above, I am looking forward to reading the third instalment.

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been provided by ReQueered Tales for the purpose of a review.

 

Additional Information

Format ebook
Length Novel
Heat Level
Publication Date 26-October-2021
Price $5.95 ebook
Buy Link https://www.amazon.com/Betrothal-Usk-City-Star-Book-ebook/dp/B099MYM6WB