The Vanished Seas - Major Bhaajan series, book 3
Catherine Asaro's most recent series set in her Skolian Empire continues with Major Bhaajan investigating the sudden disappearance of a wealthy woman from her own party. The house EI, (Evolving Intelligence), has no record of the exact minute she vanished and the destruction of the room almost looks like there was an explosion but there is no body or evidence that she left the house. Bhaajan has little to go on until another woman vanishes. Again the EI has no record and a woman in the next room heard nothing. This time the crime is personal for Lavinda Majda, the one royal that Bhaaj not only respects but actually likes. Thanks to her relationship with the crimelord Jak in the Undercity, Bhaaj slowly begins to unravel a conspiracy hidden among the Empire's elite. They are attempting to use ancient technology leftover from those who originally brought humans to Raylicon six thousand years earlier.
This time Bhaaj is mostly working in the city of Cries instead of the Undercity below which adds a lot more dimension to the world of Raylicon. Not only is she having to deal with the "above city" wealthy she hated as a child but someone is trying to kill her. None of the other investigators are targeted which suggests that her links to the Undercity are somehow important or the more disturbing possibility that one of the Majdas wants her eliminated because she knows too much. As if things aren't already confusing Bhaaj finally meets with someone about being a psion. In The Bronze Skies she learned that she actually is a psion but repressed the empathic ability as a child but as she narrowly escapes assassination again and again the evidence for her precognitive ability mounts up.
Story arcs that began in the first two books continue in the background of this one. Bhaaj sees positive improvement in the relationship between the Undercity and Cries but there is still a great deal of prejudice in both cultures. There is also the matter of trust between herself and the Majdas, for whom she supposedly works. Although she has worked a great deal with Lavinda, Bhaaj knows that the colonel's loyalties are to Majda and the Ruby Pharaoh and they will eliminate any threats to them. Even stranger is the secret of the Pharaoh's genetic ties to the Down Deep population below the Undercity, with their high percentage of full psions, one of which was Bhaajan's mother. There is also her complicated relationship with Jak to deal with, young Dust Knights to mentor, and of course, an empire that needs saving.
The series that started with a novella prior to the Skolian Empire saga continues to be Asaro's most interesting. The imagery of Raylicon, a dying world due to failed terra forming, the hidden Undercity with its secretive culture, and the ancient ships of a long lost race rusting in the evaporated sea basin known as the Vanished Sea, all evoke a world in conflict with itself that is reflected in the people who live there. Bhaajan embodies all of that with her roots in the Undercity which are at odds with her career and education in the Empire's army. Her genes come from the isolated population that most closely resembles the humans originally brought to Raylicon yet she is a thoroughly modern woman with biotech enhancements in her body.
On a technical level, Asaro's background as a Physics Professor once again plays out in the plot, although there is much less of it than in The Bronze Skies. As usual there is not only the explanation worked out in the story but an afterword explaining the principles in more detail. Fortunately, for those of us less educated in the physical sciences, the theory doesn't need to be understood to enjoy the story and to grasp what the "villains" were trying to do (they didn't really understand how it worked either). But it does make this one of the very few Sci-Fi sagas where the tech is based upon actual science and engineering.
Both the writing and performance earned 4.5+ stars on Audible and the narrator Morgan Hallet also did the first two books in the series. The Vanished Seas was a surprise publication since it never appeared for pre-order but I hope this means Asaro will continue this series.