Undercity & The Bronze Skies - the Major Bhaajan Series
Major Bhaajan is a retired soldier working as a P.I. when she returns to the desolate world of her birth. A young nobleman, who in this matriarchal society has lived his entire life in seclusion, has gone missing and the police can't find his trail because he disappeared into the ruins and caves beneath the city. The City of Cries believes the Undercity to be nothing more than a slum but to Bhaajan it's the home she both loves and hates. Locating the missing prince is only the beginning and it's time for an intergalactic empire to realize that their greatest resource is dying from neglect right under their feet.
Bhaajan's story is part of the Saga of the Skolian Imperialate. Chronologically, Undercity and Bronze Skies are the second and third books even though they were published last. I hadn't read any other books in the series and even after reading a couple of the others don't think it matters. As Undercity explains, sometime during the bronze age some humans we taken to the planet Raylicon. Who took them or why remains unknown thousands of years later. The people of Raylicon achieved interstellar flight and went looking for their legendary homeworld. The didn't find it but founded an intergalactic empire ruled by the House of Skolia. It eventually dissolved into civil war followed by a six thousand year dark age until they again ventured into the stars. Raylicon is a harsh desert world that still only has one major city, the City of Cries, which is built above a network of ancient aqueducts whose purpose was lost millennia ago.
Major Bhaajan is a child of that Undercity. In fact, she was supposedly born below the aqueducts in a region known as the down-deep where people never see light. She is hired by the House of Majda, second only to Skolia, to find one of their princes who apparently ran away from his secluded life. The first real lead Bhaaj finds leads her to back to her childhood home. She rediscovers the poverty, violence, and short lives of her people, but also their culture, strength, and amazing technologies. Finding a lost prince turns into finding a way to save her people in the Undercity while preserving their freedom. Bronze Skies explores the age old questions of why humans were abandoned on Raylicon and why they built the aqueducts as they face a powerful enemy who is using their built in bio-ware against them.
If you've ever played anything set in the ShadowRun setting the Undercity has some of that feel. Many, like Bhaajan, have integrated bioware enhancing their fighting skills and senses. The cyber-riders feel like the street samurai while the cyber-wizards resemble technomancers. There are no non-humans unless you want to consider those from the way down-deep with their eerie adaptations and the only "magics" are the psions who are empaths and telepaths.
The Skolian Imperialate is a long space opera that at times is more of a soap opera. Until reading these books I couldn't figure out why they were considered special. If you have ever been reading a sci-fi book and laughed at some of the far fetched technology you might appreciate that Asaro was the first female author to win the nebula award who actually has a degree in hard science. She has a doctorate in chemical physics from Harvard and has published papers in theoretical physics. Turns out that her first two published books, Primary Inversion and Spherical Harmonics of the Skolian Saga, were inspired by the physics concepts of the same names. The technology in her books may not be achievable today, but math says its all possible. The psionics? Maybe not, but from my background in medical research I can say that all references to genetics and physiology in these two books follow current understanding of that field. Some of her books even include sections at the end explaining the science behind the story. Being sadly indifferent to math and completely hopeless at physics (no matter how many times my Dad said physics is the easiest of the sciences) those explanations go over my head.
Major Bhaajan's story is science light for the most part. The final resolution in Bronze Skies has some basis in science but luckily you don't have to solve any equations to find out how it ends. Overall, this story is a well written entry into speculative science fiction. The two books have two different narrators on Audible but both got good reviews. I think it might have been nice to keep the same voice since everything is from Bhaajan's point of view.
Asaro also writes fantasy, romance, and even song lyrics. When she's not writing she teaches, dances, and hangs out in a government think tank.