I found about about The Myriad the old fashioned way, from an ad in the back of another DAW book. It had a blurb that promised guilty space opera goodness and was enough to rope me into a library request. Hard to imagine that back before the interwebs made SF fandom so much easier, this, author acknowledgments, and the Science Fiction Book Club were all we had. (I suppose some people subscribed to magazines, but I was stretching the allowance with Boy’s Life already.) That said, I can’t remember the last time this sort of analog advertising convinced me, so maybe I should ping DAW on Twitter to let them know that it still works.
The first thing to think about with The Myriad is the nature of storytelling twists. In some cases (The Sixth Sense), the twist turns the narrative on its head, but in a way that illuminates the hidden corners of the story and makes the audience say, “Oh! Now I understand!” In others (Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, though this is hardly the book’s only fault), it undercuts the story, chopping it off at its narrative knees and leaving the reader wondering why anything that came before even mattered. Pretty much any story that ends with, “And it was all a dream!” falls into this category. I mention this first because The Myriad has to stand or fall entirely on its last chapter, no matter the quality of everything that comes before. More on this to follow.
The book itself threatens space opera, what with the man eating space bugs and all, but settles more firmly into military SF territory. These aren’t mutually exclusive of course, and the book hints at enough subgenres to call itself whatever it wants. Still, if forced under pain of xeno-bug digestion to choose, MilSF it is. One viewpoint character is the dashing ship’s captain, a bold and cheerful leader who just happens to be amazing at captainly duties. He is also handy with a sword, which certain plot details cause to be necessary. Another character is the loyal, competent, and somewhat dense sergeant whose job it is to ride herd on the jolly band of marines. We’ve already met the space bugs, but the other troupe of bad guys is a neo-Roman Empire, complete with Latin, legions, and martial glory. The League of Earth Nations (eat that UN!) politicians are smarmy and spineless. There is valor, loyalty, and discipline; all the book needs now is a grave commander who mourns the fine young men and women he sends to their fiery deaths in his vast battlefleet to hit all of the requisite MilSF notes.
Did I mention that the crew are all Americans, protecting US interests in space because the League of Earth Nations is lily livered? And yet, for every Pournelle-esque “What the world needs now is an enlightened despot” moment, there is a sidelong wink that pricks the overinflated balloon of jingoism. Meluch plays coy with the politics, but seems too self-aware to sell out completely to the Baen Books crowd. This is without getting into the bizarre Romans, who apparently arose from a secret society that survived both the barbarians at the gates in 476 A.D. and two subsequent millenia. We don’t see much of the Romans, save for one Augustus, who has mental superpowers and is forwarded to the hero’s ship to assist with the war against the ravening space bugs. He is for me the most interesting character by a large margin. Besides his genetically enhanced intellect, he hates the Americans and tweaks them whenever possible, but is also dutiful and has a heart of, if not gold, then maybe nice bronze. He is also handy with a sword, which is convenient when the space bugs are boarding the ship and have to be beaten off with cutlasses. Yes, this book is just as strange as it sounds.
One final point before moving on. I was surprised that most of the reviews I checked of The Myriad had nothing to say about one of the female characters, including a couple of reviewers that really have no excuse for glossing over it. Meluch treats one of the women, the “morale officer” of the squad if you will, horribly. At one point, putting her in danger of being molested by an alien, the men say something like, “Well, she puts out for everyone else, so what’s one more? I’m sure she’ll like it in the end.” Egad. This wouldn’t be as shocking if the book didn’t basically condone this attitude. If a male author were to write this, it would be decried. It may be though that because Meluch’s first name appears to be Rebecca, this sort of thing is alright. I have no idea, but it was every bit as icky as an Anne McCaffery dragon lady being forcibly taken by whatever dragon rider was lucky enough to see his trusty steed chase down the queen.
Anyway, philosophical quibbles aside, the book holds together far better than it should. The characters are engaging, the plot moves along rapidly, and actual Science even pops its head in from time to time. There are a couple of “wait … what?” moments, but nothing too egregious. If I were to start this review by saying, “American marines and Romans fighting xenocidal space bugs with swords – it works,” my loyal readers would probably try to lock me up. But …. it works. Right up until it doesn’t.
Several things I’ve read say that The Myriad really can’t be appreciated until one reads the second book. After that, the whacko twist at the end of The Myriad makes total sense and is actually brilliant. This may be so. Unfortunately, I have to deal with the book on its own, and I wanted to toss it out the bus window. Meluch let her characters paint themselves into several corners, but this was not the resolution I was looking for. Maybe I’ll change my mind after reading the next book, because I will eventually read the next book, but for now I reserve the right to feel a bit cheated. Still, like an LA Lakers victory, eventually the foul taste wears off and we only remember the good times. I’ll be sure to read and review the next book, leaving this for now with a conditional recommendation.
Rating: Chelsea-Liverpool, 2008 Champions League at Anfield. Liverpool dominates and seems intent on their second straight CL final before inexplicably heading in an own goal in extra time. They have never been the same.