Short & sweet: a lot of fun, full of adventure, heroics, and romance, and a little more readily accessible than the first book in the trilogy. By this second book, the large cast of characters and mind-blowing future world had already been introduced, allowing the reader to focus more on characters, whodunit, and stuff blowing up – the last being the hallmark of good space opera. Go purchase and read the trilogy!
Following the Golden Age (reviewed here), the first book of his Golden Age trilogy, in The Phoenix Exultant Wright plunges our hero Phaethon, fresh from being condemned by the College of Hortators, shunned, and banished from the Golden Oecumene, into deeper and deeper trouble.
Minor spoilers ahead.
The story picks up after Phaethon has climbed down a space elevator – his shunning means no one in good standing with the Golden Oecomene will help him in any way – from geosynchronous orbit to earth’s surface over the course of a few months, and found himself in the middle of the celebration of the upcoming Transcendence. Trouble is, without the help of the mentality and its sense-filters, he sees not the elaborate and beautiful representations, but the crass and dull ugliness of unfiltered reality.
If people knew who he was, he would be immediately shunned and heckled and otherwise abused and driven away; as it is, the tradition is to celebrate the Millennial Transcendence with a masquerade – nobody knows who anybody is, unless they deign to tell him.
Based on what the detective sophotec Harrier told him at his exile, Phaethon needs to get to Ceylon, to a town called Talaimannar, where fellow outcasts live an impoverished existence outside the mentality. Trouble is, no one can offer much help to someone disconnected from the mentality, and his question – where am I and how do I get to Talaimannar? – would be nonsensical to anyone in the mentality, as that sort of information would be supplied by the matrix as soon as the question was formed.
Phaeton causes a ruckus, his identity becomes known, and he somehow finds his way aboard an airship run by the Bellipotent Composition – a disbanded and disgraced group mind, also outside the mentality, who dumps him unceremoniously at his destination.
Manor born and previously wealthy beyond all imagining, and bereft of the help of the Radamanth house sophotec he’d taken for granted his entire life, Phaethon has to navigate and negotiate with the sort of riff-raff who get themselves exiled. He needs to stay alive, find a way off earth, and regain his starship, all while broke and shunned by virtually everyone who could help him. It does not go well, at least at first.
The book becomes part Swiss Family Robinson (I suppose people might today think “MacGyver” but I’ve never seen that show) and part whodunit, as Phaeton jury-rigs a life, makes contact with unlikely sources of help, extricates himself from the snares of his new ‘friends,’ and plans his escape – all the while trying to avoid being discovered and killed by an unknown enemy who everybody else seems to believe is part of an elaborate fantasy devised by Phaeton to escape justice.
While the first book is set in a future Utopia of vast wealth, luxury and freedom, the second explores the underbelly of that same society. I most enjoyed the characters. Daphne, a clone of sorts of Phaeton’s wife which she made before she descended into a fantasy world from which there is no escape, is in many ways a classic dame from a Raymond Chandler novel, desperately in love with the man she believes is her husband. She accepts exile and the risk of death to help him. Harrier, the sophotec detective, is a nice touch, a little bit Sherlock Holmes.
Best of all is Atkins, the last soldier in the Oecomene, who steals the show whenever he’s onstage. Atkins takes a stern military joy in having and even, very rarely, using weapons of unimaginable power. Phaethon’s predicament provides Atkins with the first chance he’s had in millennia to be what he is: the last defender of the Golden Oecomene. Daphne observes that he and Phaethon are having a little testosterone competition, and that Phaethon is woefully outclassed.
This middle book ends with Phaeton having solved many of his problems with the help of an unlikely and amusing cast of characters, but still not fully knowing who his true adversaries are, nor his enemies’ goals and powers.
A lot of fun. On to book 3, The Golden Transcendence.