It’s not often that I give a five-star review. My criteria for this hinge on three things: plot and action, characterization, and writer’s voice and verbalization. At least two of these have to stand out as well above standard. In the case of Bellica, both the story and the characterization are so superior that I can’t give the book less than the highest rating.
The story is set in a society that seems to be a technologically devolved human colony on a distant planet — although the people living in it have no concept of space travel. Certainly more advanced ages occurred in the past, and some relics of the past still exist to be exploited even if they are unreliable. There is also a native race, the Magi, that are described and presented and characterized in just enough detail to make them believable and fun, without turning the book into a history or biology text. The society has some very curious cultural elements that are not fully explained and perhaps not fully understood by its own citizens, or taken for granted. It is a matriarchy in just about every respect, down to the modes of address, courtesy gestures, and religion (polytheistic goddess-worship with barely the recognition that a “god” is even a possible concept), as well as the government. The main story involves the succession to the throne. The Empress has died before her heir is of age (at 30). The heir is universally loathed, and is one of twin sisters, with the other twin being universally admired. The heir’s twin serves as a “bellica” — a military commander of a regiment (female of course) — and is regarded as the best warrior in the empire. A plot develops to overthrow the heir (Zardria) and replace her with her bellica twin-sister (Yarrow). The conspiracy involves other important characters, and the story winds through mazes of intrigue, deception, setbacks, magical surprises, strange discoveries, and bizarre twists to a conclusion that I at least did not anticipate until near the end. There is lots of exciting action, plenty of romance, devious plotting, and wondrous magic.
The characters are splendid. Yarrow, her “Major” (second-in-command, for some reason usually male), Zardria, Yarrow’s friend and fellow-bellica Anala, Anala’s Major Ano, all of these are memorable, but the character that enchanted me completely was the young healer Ghia. Part-Magi (don’t ask me how that was possible; I don’t know and neither did they) with extraordinary powers, Ghia combines a magnificent heart, a sharp mind, a degree of self-destructive hubris, incredible and sometimes foolish courage, emotional blindness, and the silliness of the very young in a way I found irresistible. If she were before me right now, I’d make a pass at her and then pay her way through college (regardless of how she responded).
For these two reasons, extraordinary story and extraordinary characters, five stars.
I don’t mean to suggest that Bellica is without flaws. The writing quality is only a little above average in terms of word-smithing and the song of prose. I felt the whole book could use another pass through of proofreading and copy editing. The central tragic flaw in Empress Zardria was not entirely believable, or was not presented sufficiently early in the book to make it so. I also felt the story ended a bit too abruptly after the climax and a little more could have been added to wind down and tie off loose ends.
But no book is without flaws. This one still gets the highest rating I can give it.
Available at Amazon