Review of ‘Undercity’ by Catherine Asaro

Undercity is the first in a new series by Catherine Asaro, which follows the travails of Bhaajan, a semi-retired military officer turned private investigator. While I have no familiarity with the larger world in which this book takes place, it didn’t feel necessary as the scale of the story was quote tightly focused. An interesting protagonist with a creative story, but which felt a little unfocused plot-wise in direct opposition to the tight focus of the setting and characters. An enjoyable enough tale for what it was, but suffering a little from trying to do too many things and doing none of them as well as it could.

BOOK ONE IN A BRAND NEW SERIES by Nebula and Hugo Award Winner Catherine Asaro set in the world of her Skolian Empire universe. In the galaxy-spanning future, Major Bhaajan is a tough female P.I. who works the dangerous streets of Undercity.

Major Bhaajan, a former military officer with Imperial Space Command, is now a hard-bitten P.I. with a load of baggage to deal with, and clients with woes sometimes personal, sometimes galaxy-shattering, and sometimes both. Bhaajan must sift through the shadows of dark and dangerous Undercity—the enormous capital of a vast star empire—to find answers.

To start, I’d like to express a slight pet peeve of mine present in this book. When a publisher is putting together a blurb to put on the back cover/jacket liner, maybe put some effort into not just making it blatantly wrong in several places? Major Bhaajan does not ‘work the dangerous streets of Undercity.’ As a major character point, she has done her level best to never go there and is essentially forced to by circumstances beyond her ability to resist. Nor is Undercity the enormous capital of anything. It’s a tiny little slum UNDER the enormous capital etc etc. It feels a little akin to describing London as ‘The Underground’ or New York as ‘The Sewers.’ Come on guys, you can pique our interest without just making crap up! It’s not the worst case I’ve seen of this, but it is still annoying to go into a book thinking something and then finding out that whether out of laziness, incompetence or some idea of withholding information for surprise, you’ve just been told things which weren’t true. Anyways, off to this great start, let’s move on to the meat of the story itself.

Or rather, the stories themselves. Undercity feels more like three short stories than one novel. Major Bhaajan has a case, that case leads into another job, which leads into some sociopolitical action on her part. None of these stories really refer back to the rest of the book; they just sort of segue one into the other. This isn’t necessarily bad on its own, but it made all three stories feel very rushed. This is only a 270 page book, and 90 pages isn’t enough to do these stories justice. Asaro really is a good storyteller, and what shallow take we get on the stories is well put-together, in spite of the feeling that there was a checklist which needed shoehorning into the novel no matter how it had to get in there.

This of course creates the problem that Asaro has lost focus. What is this novel about? There are these abrupt 180s happening in the narrative which are decidedly jarring. No sooner does she complete her original mission then suddenly *pow* this has revealed a new distressing development you need to drop everything and focus solely on. Oh, you’ve got that dealt with? Here’s another totally different thing. I know these would be three novels normally but we’re in a rush. Honestly it feels a little like playing an MMO. You’ve finished the quest to kill 5 bears? All right, now go put out some fires while also picking flowers. Done that? Great, dig some trenches. It loses a lot of flow, which really is tragic because each section was a perfectly interesting story in itself.

The other strange effect of structuring the story in this way is that it leaves us with a bit of a ‘so now what?’ feeling. All three of these plotlines have pretty neatly closed themselves off. There’s not much more to do since the ending of each was allowed to be so abrupt. If each had been played out for 200 pages, the denouement could have been interesting and added quite a lot to the story. Instead, since it feels more like Bhaajan turns in her quest and picks up a new one, going back to them wouldn’t really work. There were some significant sociopolitical and philosophical elements to these plotlines that I would really have enjoyed digging deeper into. Some far-reaching consequences could have fallen out of the way things went down, but instead it feels like when next we meet Bhaajan, she’ll just be on a ship off to somewhere totally different. Not really a bad thing, so much as a missed opportunity.

I think that’s really the overriding point of this review: This could have been two or even three really good novels. Asaro has created a compelling world, even if we get only tangential glimpses of it in this book. Bhaajan is a great protagonist. She has depth and a history and motives underpinning her actions. The culture of the Undercity is compelling and I’d love to see more of what goes on there as well, but the way that Undercity was sort of dashing through on its way to other things was a little off-putting. I still enjoyed Undercity and look forward to future instalments, but I hope Catherine Asaro realises the great character and setup she’s got here, and just slows down a little and focuses more on Bhaajan than the plot events swirling around her.

Dan was given an Advanced Review Copy of this book by Baen Books via NetGalley

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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