Review: Seven Devils by Elizabeth May and Laura Lam

I was given a free copy of this book by Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. That was back in August. I finally finished Seven Devils at literally the eleventh hour on New Year’s Eve 2020.

That kind of sums up my main issue with the book. I just didn’t enjoy it. I really struggled to read it, which was a real shame as I loved the concept. The world needs more feminist LGBQT+ space operas, so I was determined to finish and I’ll probably read the sequel to support the authors, but sadly Seven Devils did not grip me. The writing was often clunky or cliché though, to be fair, there were some neat turns of phrase too. Like in Firefly, there’s plenty of slang and invented terms, though the dialect of the ‘Snarl’ where the last naturally born humans live (including Clo, one of our heroines) sounds suspiciously like a Scottish accent. (This is also dicey, considering the Brave New World-like attitudes of this fictional society, in which people are genetically engineered and ‘grown’ and natural reproduction is considered primitive. By extension, Clo is presented as uncouth and unrefined, and her community is poverty-stricken, crime-ridden and drug-addled (by the Empire’s design). I’m just saying, there are unfortunate implications.)

Still, the worldbuilding was generally one of the book’s stronger elements. It seems to be set centuries into a future in which humans have conquered distant galaxies, since Graeco-Latin words and terms are used throughout. The “Oracle” is the AI that keeps the Empire running and controls its citizens, who are all genetically engineered and programmed from birth to fit various roles, like “servitor” (servant class) or “militus” (soldier class). This, incidentally, was another strong point, since the brainwashing and the Oracle’s ability to hijack its victims was genuinely chilling. In my opinion, this also saves the book, with its mostly female cast, from the inevitable accusations of misandry, since most of the male antagonists are brainwashed, so their actions are not their fault. (You could also argue that even the main villain, Prince Damocles, is a product of cultural indoctrination.) In any event, unlearning prejudice is a theme that I hope will be expanded upon in the sequel(s).

Some little bits of worldbuilding fit nicely with the book’s overarching themes. Given the norm for ‘growing’ people, traditional family units no longer exist. Other characters are very curious about Clo’s relationship with her mother and there’s a taboo around phrases like “brother” and “sister” (or “frater” and “soror”, since this is a Latin-obsessed civilization). Little touches like these round out the fictional world and fit with the book’s themes of (found) family and community versus the state. (Most of the other main characters have issues with isolation and alienation and even Clo is orphaned.) Genocide of alien races is referenced multiple times and the Tholosian worldview – that the human race are entitled to every planet they come across – is essentially a kind of authoritarian Manifest Destiny on a cosmic scale. This extends to some observations on male entitlement and fragility in the book’s main antagonist, Prince Damocles, who’s kind of a cartoon villain with a massive chip on his shoulder due to his own failings and his father’s obvious preference for his sister, Princess Discordia. (I did like Princess Discordia’s storyline, by the way.) As I said before, the authors highlight the fact that he’s a product of his culture, but he lacks depth or interesting facets as a villain. I also found it hard to believe that in a cohort of genetically engineered superhumans (essentially), Discordia was the only girl to have survived to adulthood. Sure, the authors were making a point about the harshness of the royal family’s training but, for a book full of feminist messages, it seems to reinforce the idea that women (even genetically engineered women) are inherently weak, compared to men. 

To be fair, I did enjoy reading about women desperados adventuring and working together. And the main cast is diverse, including a trans woman, women of color, a sex worker, LGBQT+ characters (and a lesbian romance), a character with a disability (and a prosthetic) and a character who could be interpreted as neuro-divergent (Ariadne is a genius who struggles with social skills, though that could be attributed to her isolated upbringing). On the other hand, the plan they come up with to fight the empire (upon which the plot hinges) seemed pretty stupid to me, and the characters kept reacting with surprise to things I thought were obvious. I spotted the big twist at the end way before any of the characters did, for example. A climactic scene, discovering one of the Empire’s atrocities on a forgotten planet, also reminded me a bit too much of the Miranda scene in Serenity.

I think Seven Devils has its strong points, but for me, at least, the plot, occasional typos and even some of the writing let it down. Of course, that could just be me, and I’m sure lots of people will enjoy it much more than I did.  

Alternative Title: Aliens

Best Lines:

Yes, beautiful things were always underestimated.

She shook her head as if she could rattle a plan loose.

Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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