Prophets marks the first book in a new series from S. Andrew Swann set in the same universe as two of his previous series (Hostile Takeover and Moreau). Set several centuries in the future Prophets begins 200 years after the fall of the human Confederacy (an organizations of human planets and colonies) and where the Roman Catholic Church represents a powerful political force in the expansion of human influence in the galaxy. A rising power, the islamic Eridani Caliphate, is quickly gaining ground on the Church while a third party, represented by the enigmatic Mr. Antonio, manipulates both governments and individuals towards a yet unknown goal. Prophets is a novel that covers all the standard space opera bases and covers them well. Unique and fascinating alien races, genetically engineered humans, sentient AI, political machinations, fascinating human cultures, and mystery are all present and accounted far. This might of made for a fairly generic story but Swann manages to weave a startling complexity and depth into each of those aspects and ties everything together with spiritual and religious themes that are overt but never obnoxious.
Complex societies and deep world-building are certainly the novel’s strongest suits and make for some wonderful reading but I found that character development was a little and under-utilized. I admit that I gravitate towards fiction that is character-driven so I admit that some space opera, a genre that frequently features a large and diverse cast with no clear protagonist often leaves me in a bit of a lurch. Prophets is frequently frustrating because it espouses the potential for some truly interesting characters but, with perhaps one exception, never really capitalizes on that potential. Father Francis Xavier Mallory, our first real human perspective is perhaps the greatest victim here. A Jesuit professor and former marine Mallory has all the earmarks of a what could be a truly fascinating characters (ass-kicking, gun-toting priests, are a rare commodity in the sci-fi world, at least as far as I know) but never manages to develop into a full-fledged three dimensional character. It consistently felt to me that things happened to Mallory and he frequently felt like a victim of the plot rather than an agent in furthering the story. Towards the end of the novel, we only get a glimpse of Mallory’s level-headed calm while under-fire but we are whisked away to other characters and other plot-threads before we really get to see what he is capable of.
Contrasted with the moreau (a descendant of genetically engineered man-tiger hybrids) Nickolai Rajasthan, Mallory’s lack of development is even more apparent. Swann spends considerable time and effort developing Nickolai into a complex and fascinating character torn between his ingrained sense of honor and his own knowledge of his damned fate. Nickolai’s contrary nature and fascinating non-human perspective are always interesting to read. While he frequently remains inscrutable he somehow manages to remain a tragic figure that you want to root for. Frequently I found that Swann’s handling of non-human, or post-human, characters are more interesting that his baseline humans. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or simply a by-product of the fascinating histories and technologies that make those species standout from the baseline humans.
However, the impressively developed history of the Prophets universe more than makes up for the minor quibbles that arise as a result of uneven characterization. The underlaying exploration of religion and spirituality is fascinating and reveals a surprisingly deft touch. Hidden in that exploration is rather interesting interpretation of the potential response to the idea of the “singularity” and the effects of genetic manipulation on human spirituality and the development of non-human religions. The move from what sounds like the more secular human Confederacy to the current religion influenced political climate is a interesting means of responding to technological progress and the seeming reliance on religion as means to balance the development of that progress is, at least to me, surprisingly realistic and (I think) not without historical precedence. Perhaps most fascinating is the development of religion amongst the human-created species that now exist apart from humanity at large. I don’t want to ruin it, it is a surprising development and one I hope is explored more as the series goes on.
Prophets is a fantastic read that any space opera fan should be more than happy to take a look at. Well-developed alternate human cultures, exciting new technologies, and some intense action scenes heighten a complex politically and religiously charged plot that is not only fun to read but raises interesting questions about the nature of both God and humanity in the face of huge leaps in technological progress. Despite taking place in a universe already explored by previous books I never felt like I was too lost and Swann gives enough back story over the course of the text that I felt confident I had a handle of what was going on. Prophets was a great read and I definatly look forward to seeing where this excellent new series goes. As an added bonus check out the book trailer below!