This is the second of Stirling’s pastiches of 1930s-’50s science fiction, and even better than his first. When I saw this book in the Barnes & Noble years ago, I knew it looked awesome; flash forward two years, to a point where I have some money for books, and see it in the bargain books bin of a local Big Lots. (For shame.)
Things open with a 1962 science fiction convention, where the era’s major SF writers get cameos watching an American satellite probe land on the harsh Martian desert. It’s a follow-up to the Soviet probe landing on Venus earlier that year, which proved there was sentient life on the other worlds. You can play who’s-who with the Golden Age legends as they make commentary on the news feed (at one point, someone wishes “poor Edgar” was here to see his Barsoom come to life). The initial point-of-view character is Frederik Pohl, for example. Needless to say, I was hooked, and a little giddy that my pointless Golden Age SF Writer trivia was actually useful. And things end with Leigh Brackett giving everyone their comeuppance. It’s a great touch, even though it doesn’t impact the novel.
Cut to 2000. The Americans and Soviets have both planted colonies on Mars, and are taking their (deep-hibernation) Cold War into space. Earth has changed dramatically—France leads a European Union, Britain is an American vassal, there was no Sino-Soviet Split… This continues into pop culture references, such as when our protagonist mentions “Hey, that’s a stereotype. Like the unemotional half-Martian Science Officer on the Federation Starship New Frontier…”
Said protagonist is Archeologist Jeremy Wainman, recent arrival to Mars, heading out to explore some ancient Martian ruins with an assistant-bodyguard. His guide is Teyud za-Zhalt, secretly the heiress to the Martian crown. But even she doesn’t know that, until things start rolling. The two (and their crew) are tailed and ambushed by Martian pirate mercenaries; Teyud’s father is embroiled in political games of intrigue; they’re attacked, and Wainman is captured. Suffice to say, stuff happens, and the novel doesn’t fail to disappoint on either plot, action, or retro-Martian world building.
Stirling gives himself more free reign in world-building, and it pays off big dividends. One of my few issues with The Sky People was that it was just stock jungle Venus: dinosaurs, cave-people, Soviets, etc. With Crimson Kings, we get a larger view of the socio-cultural changes on Earth, which is pretty cool. Better, Mars is rife with fascinating developments: the ornate Martian royalty and their intrigues, the ancient ruins, the rampant use of bio-technology. (The last bit also involves bio-tech creations run amok, which was a set-piece made of pure, unadulterated awesome.) Things feel more developed and real, befitting an ancient culture rigid with hierarchy and plagued by its own withered history.
Compared to The Sky People, Crimson Kings felt like a stronger book. There’s more of a mystery here, more world- and culture-building, more of an intricate plot. Maybe it’s just my preference of Barsoom to Amtor, but this novel felt stronger than the first one, head and shoulders above it. The Sky People was good escapist fun, and Crimson Kings took that and turned it up to eleven, adding a tangle of twists and intrigue to make the characters—and plot—more interesting, varied, and dynamic. As a homage to the likes of Burroughs, Brackett, and Bradbury, Sterling has done well. As a retro-pulp adventure tale, and compared to his prior volume, he knocked one out of the park. In The Courts of the Crimson Kings should go on your buy list if you’re interested in old-school action to any degree; it’s more than worth it. Depending on how much you like it, it might be worth picking up The Sky People as well.
In case you were wondering, given the comparisons, you can read this book without having any knowledge of The Sky People. Marc Vitrac has a cameo, and Franziskus makes an appearance, but there’s not a lot of overlap. The tone and style is different—Mars instead of Venus, duh—which helps. To be honest, I read them in reverse order: I started with Crimson Kings while my copy of The Sky People was still in the mail. That did not ruin my reading experience. (Though it could be why I prefer Crimson Kings to Sky People, but so be it.)