Book review: Seven Devils by Elizabeth May and Laura Lam

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

It’s not often you come across a space opera, the authors of which thank readers in the acknowledgements for “following the Seven Devils Smash the Patriarchy In Space”.

But that is precisely what Elizabeth May and Laura Lam do in Seven Devils, a sci-fi extravaganza with a very serious intent.

Namely the overthrow of the galaxy-devouring Tholosian Empire, a human-based sprawl of avarice, greed and cruelly-invoked power which thinks nothing of killing off indigenous lifeforms on the planets it takes over and which controls its billions of citizens by way of an implant chip through the Oracle, the AI-mind that orchestrates everything, which allows very little room for independent thought or feeling.

If you think that’s bleak, then meet the crew of the Asteria/Zelus/Lysicrates – the name depends on which ship has been stolen at what time – an all-female cell of anti-empire freedom fighters, with entrenched or just-established links with the Novantae Resistance, who are committed to bringing the Tholosians to their knees … or die trying (and who, it must be noted, all have long and sorrowful histories within the empire’s nightmarishly unyielding grip).

The thing is, the latter is more likely than the former to play out throughout much all of Seven Devils, which celebrates hope, freedom and a uniquely-female perspective on fighting for what’s right even as it sagely observe, with equal amounts of fury and sadness at the Herculean nature of that struggle.

“Eris got a call from her commander while she was killing a man.

The guard slumped against her, dead in under thirty seconds from a blade to the throat, a stab in the carotid artery. Fast and quiet. The sharp, tangy scent of his blood wafted towards her as she hauled the guard’s still-warm body against hers and slowly lowered him to the spacecraft’s floor.

Could she have prevented this death? If she were honest with herself: yes.

But there was no time for guilt. She was doing her job.” (P. 1)

What captures your attention immediately are the characters who emerge so beautifully fully-formed on the page that it’s hard to believe you haven’t known them all your life.

Chief among them, for reasons that will become clear, is Eris, a woman with fearsomely good speed and fighting skills who carrying a huge, dark secret – she is Princess Discordia, the supposedly dead Heir Apparent to the Archon or ruler of the Tholosians, who chose a faked death over stepping up to rule over a corrupt and morally bankrupt apparatus in which she no longer believes.

Quite personal reasons have driven her to make this dramatic break, a seismic move which means that the “Spare”, her “brother” Damocles – no one in the empire is natural born, save for a few on backwater planets like Myndalia, with everyone born into vat-grown cohorts dedicated to a singular purpose such as fighting, administration etc. – is now next in line to the throne, a troubling development because if the empire is evil, then Damocles is the very personification of Satan himself.

With her inside knowledge and impressive skills, Eris is a prime asset to the Novantae, as is Clo, a hot-headed mechanic with multiple chips on her capable shoulders, Rhea, a palace courtesan who was once the intimate companion (unwillingly) to Damocles, gifted techie Ariadne, a 15-year-old who has lived alone her entire life with only the Oracle for soulless company and Nyx, a onetime elite soldier who has been deprogrammed and now uses her considerable fighting skills for a far nobler cause.

Each of these characters and others who feature in the book, are wonderfully and vividly brought alive on the Seven Devils, each of them possessing sharply-drawn personalities, defined and compelling worldviews and emotional baggage so pronounced that everything they do comes with considerable weight.

(image courtesy lauralam.co.uk)

If that all sounds darkly, terribly depressing, it’s actually far from it.

Weighted down by their pasts these women maybe but they are hardly wilting in the corner, lost in a miasma of pain and loss; even though they would like to be anywhere else doing pretty much anything else, they step to fight the good fight, driven by a fierce, if sadness-tinged sense that if no one is willing to rebel, then from where does the resistance come?

May and Lam bring this dichotomy of noble intent and scarred humanity to life with sensitivity and insight with each person coming across as authentically grounded, broken people who don’t want to feel sorry for themselves (though neither do they pretend their pain is vanquished by what they do) but step up to face down the empire, take on foes immensely more powerful than they are and hopefully, if the Gods of the Avern so align, to save millions of lives.

Throughout Seven Devils, you get a profoundly moving sense of what it means to oppose great evil and tyrnanny.

We have all read stories of people standing up to the Nazis, for instance, and told well, as a good story should be, they sounds noble and passionate and inspiring; and of course they are, but what is often not noted is how much it costs those brave enough to stand up and do what is right.

“A soft whirring echoed through the quiet room as the floor beneath them slowly, slowly faded away to become translucent glass. Clo had discovered many people didn’t enjoy this feature to the spherical observation deck; another mechanic at Nova had said it gave him vertigo.

But Clo loved it. Above and below them, Clo and Rhea were surrounded by millions of bright stars and their solar systems as if they were dashed out in space, walking through the galaxy.” (P. 289)

It can often cost them everything and while victories might be gained and battles won, the cost is so high and the power they oppose so great, that it can feel as if you are giving so much for so very little.

But that doesn’t stop Eris, Clo and the others who, despite a collective desire to run and hide and never be reminded of the evils they endured, rush back into the fray, taking on the very evil they fled from in the name of freeing others from the same crushing, existential burden.

It is inspiring but very human stuff and Lam and May do a moving job of exploring what it is like to fight for freedom and how it is not as noble or inspiring as Hollywood would lead you to believe.

Seven Devils has a lot going on, from inner crises to relationship snarking to massive action set pieces but it also has moments of real romance and tenderness, great humour and a transcendent sense of connection and belonging, all of which are important because what is the point of fighting tenacious evil if you can’t also celebrate those good and wonderful things which will hopefully take their place?

As space operas go, Seven Devils is one of the very good ones – immensely expansive in its humanity and its action set pieces but intimate and moving when it comes to the people at the centre of the story who propel the story along with wit, verve and scarring emotional honesty, and who remind us that though the battles may not always go the way you want, they are worth fighting because if you don’t, evil will flourish and that, in a world beset by so much of it, simply cannot be allowed to stand.

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