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Book Review: The Martian General’s Daughter by Theodore Judson

* Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Science Fiction, Military SF
* ISBN: 1591026431
* ISBN-13: 9781591026433
* Format: Paperback, 294pp
* Publisher: PYR
* Pub. Date: April 2008

Theodore Judson’s third book, The Martian General’s Daughter, is a homage to empire. But it is not an empire that succeeds and brings enlightenment to its people, as other science fiction novels have portrayed, rather it is homage to the death of empire, a description of the events that can lead to the unraveling of an empire that spanned half the world.

Told through the eyes of Justa, the daughter of the title, we novel describes how an empire, when centered on one man can fall into ruin so that it becomes a shadow of itself. In this case, the empire is the Pan-Polarian Empire, the ruler of most of the Northern Hemisphere. Really the remains of the American republic, this new empire has followed in the footsteps of its Roman predecessor. Due to our own stupidity, mankind has invented nanomachines that destroy technology, so man is now rapidly descending into a life of living hand to mouth, having to fend for himself and provide for all his needs without the benefits provided by technology and electricity. In this world is Peter Black, the general of the title, who lives by the old code of honor, duty, and loyalty, even as those who he follows are first evil, and then truly mad.

Judson expertly weaves a story that is mimicry of the fall of the Roman Empire. What Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire takes volumes to describe, Judson compacts into 252 pages. We have the attempt at find goodness of Marcus Aurelius, we have the madness of Nero, and we have the self-serving antics of the nobles, as they scrabbled to take a piece of the pie that was the empire. Justa describes them all in a voice of sadness, especially as she sees her honest and loyal father buffeted by the winds of avarice, greed, and madness. Judson shows us her care and love for her father, even as she coldly relates the events that lead to the eventual destruction of all that he had sought for.

Judson weaves present and past together. Each successive chapter moves forward or backward in time, so the Justa seems to be telling either a story of the present time or a story of ancient history when she was young and the Pan-Polarian Empire still powerful. The bouncing back and forth can be confusing at times, especially when characters you had read were dead in the previous chapter crop up again in the next, still alive and kicking, but with a quick shake of the head this can be cleared away.

Many references are made to Roman and Greek history, and those readers who have seen movies like Gladiator and Spartacus or are well read in classical history will have a multitude of moments of epiphany when they see events and actions that have an intentionally written parallel to what we know of history, especially that of the Romans. I found these moments pleasurable, as I could say I knew something of the true history that informed Judson’s writing, and could feel that just as I was reading for pleasure, I was learning as well. Those themes and ideas that history teachers had made so dry and boring were understood in reading The Martian General’s Daughter. I can now read the histories of Rome and other empires with a better understanding of what they are all about.

Some readers may also dislike the fact the Mars really has little to do with the story. The tale takes place almost entirely on Earth, and Mars is only anecdotal to the story. Perhaps the title had a nice ring to it, since it evokes images of Mars, God of War, and its primary protagonist is in fact a general in the Roman style. The nuance of the title is evident after a reading of the book, but to the casual observer it may feel misleading, at least initially.

I also wondered at how Justa could describe some of the events she described, especially those where she was not there. I had to assume that at some point her father told her or she picked it up somewhere, but it is never made clear. The result is such that while Justa is a character in the story, she is also an omnipresent narrator, which can cause the reader to wonder at how she knows the things she relates. But remembering that she is relating all the items as her past makes it easier to swallow her omnipresence.

I also find interesting Judson’s use of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but particularly Christianity. Although it plays very little role in the story for the most part, it is depicted much as history tells us it was treated in the Roman Empire. Judson could have left it out entirely, and the fact that he left it in as part of the make-up of the society of the Pan-Polarian Empire is an interesting facet of the tale, if a small one. This was the minor detail that stood out to me, but Judson waves so many details into the fabric of the society he creates, you are bound to have one that resonates with you as well.

And that is the beauty of the tale. While telling the story of the demise of an empire, Judson still manages to evoke feelings of hope and pride, integrate detail and spin a complex web of politics and intrigue. We are proud of General Black and Justa as they face insurmountable odds in a world gone mad. Although the novel reads like a history, Justa’s perspective makes it personal, and her forthright and honest father provides the necessary juxtaposition of good against all the evil of the emperors.

This novel is now proudly displayed on my shelf, and I plan to one day hand to my child and use it to teach them about how empires fall. This fictionalized account is able to succinctly encapsulate the events and feeling of that kind of time, and while it can never replace a learning of history, it is certainly a starting point for discussions on politics, religion, and culture. I am certain that The Martian General’s Daughter is sure to become part of the canon of science fiction reading, if not a work read alongside George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This is a novel that should not be missed. I read it in its entirety in one sitting, as I just could not put it down.

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