Sci-Fi Review: ‘Undercity’ by Catherine Asaro

Undercity (Major Baahjan, #1)Holy messiah syndrome Batman! Diamond in the rough private investigator solves all her cases and then works on fixing the entire world. Carried out with all the subtly of a jackhammer.

Major Bhaajan is a women who left poverty on her own and joined the military where she exceled. She has survived on her own since running away from an orphanage at age 3(!?). Granted she had help; a five year old showed her the ropes underneath the undercity where the ‘dust rats’ fight for survival. Military life provides her with biological augmentations that make her super human (and her appearance at a good twenty years younger than it should) and a easy transition to PI. Which in turn leads to her covert hiring by the top of the top; Majda royalty missing a prince.

A two part tale by design; the first third acts as an independent novella (and was published as such previously). It is here that Bhaajan attempts to find the missing prince and the details of society are lain out. I mentioned subtlety? We have a ‘gender flipped’ society on our hands with women acting as the matriarchal rulers with Taliban-like gender divisions. As in burkas, completely lack of freedom, and education bans. But there is no reason or consistency for this that I can see. The society doesn’t seem overtly religious and in practical application as a whole appears to have left this matriarchy behind; so a small group of royals enforce it among themselves purely to uphold tradition?

The rest of the book, once the case is inevitable wrapped up, builds on Bhaajan’s discoveries as she works to save the undercity society; and inevitable all of society. Gang warfare, malnutrition, and a stubborn desire to keep their own way of life are the make-up of denizens of this sub society; completely ignored by the upper society outside of occasional attempts to round up the orphans and give them a ‘better’ life. Having left this world Bhaajan is sucked back in during the case and finds herself not only caring about the plight of her former world but with some hope of being able to change it.

As interesting as this underworld was it was diminished by a lack of mapping before everything was put to page. A world that has gambling dens, violent gang wars, and that has managed to survive without an influx of new bodies for hundreds of years and yet its population is constantly estimated by those on the outside to be in the dozens? Minimum breeding populations are not going to be met by those numbers, especially with a high mortality rate that the text suggests. Even Bhaajan, who grew up in this world, seems to think there are less than a hundred people supporting this population.

Bhaajan is the type of character that can do no wrong. She unlocks puzzles with ease, has access to everyone worth knowing, hides from the most sophisticated security and gets respect for her suggestions from every single person she deals with. She gains quite a following, makes gangsters put down their weapons in each others’ presence, and it is hinted that she may have set the path for a world changing movement by her simplest actions. But I do not fault this character path because it worked. There was a lack of tension sure, little to no doubt that if Bhaajan sets her mind to it she will get her way. But it was entertaining watching her work; her cool under pressure, quick reasoning, and willingness to take a little time for herself along with it (finding an old piece of eye candy that remembers her well).

On the whole I found this to be a pretty good book; those looking for a strong female protagonist will be pleased (and those who toss around the term Mary Sue will probably be better off looking elsewhere). If I found some of the setting to be a bit lazy it never distracted enough to take from the story.

3 Stars

Review copy provided by publisher through NetGalley.

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