The Last Hawk is the third published novel in Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire series. The books within this romantic science fiction series are written about several different characters and many of the books can stand alone. The Last Hawk is the first book about Kelric, the Imperator’s half brother and heir, whose story is continued in Ascendant Sun. Although this novel takes place outside of the Skolian Empire, it works well on its own and is a decent introduction to the series. It’s also my favorite Skolian Saga book so far because of its well-developed society and excellent characters.
When Kelric’s ship is attacked by the Traders, he is forced to land on the planet Coba before his vessel’s last engine fails. The inhabitants are frightened to discover the nearly dead man is not from their world since they do not want to be part of the Skolian Empire and have convinced Imperial Space Command to mark them as a restricted world. If Kelric were to return home, the news that there was no reason not to incorporate Coba into the empire would spread and their society would be ruined. Although they feel threatened by his presence, two of the most powerful women within the matriarchy are intrigued by the handsome stranger so he is cared for and his ship is destroyed.
While Kelric is recovering, he becomes excellent at playing Quis, an intricate game that is interwoven into Coban politics. The strongest estates on the planet are those whose managers (queens) are the best players, aided by the skills of their Calani. The Calani is comprised of the very best male Quis players, whose lives are dedicated to serving their estate through their skills at the game. These men are bound by very strict rules and must take a vow to avoid reading, writing, contact with the outside world, and speaking to most people.
After discovering the deliberate destruction of his ship, Kelric becomes very upset and attempts to escape. He very nearly succeeds at stealing one of the Coban ships, and once he is recaptured, one of the managers suggests he should be executed just in case he ever does manage to leave. Deha, the manager of the fourth most powerful estate, has fallen for Kelric and saves him by making him one of her Calani and her husband. Thus begins Kelric’s role as a political pawn – and sought-ought commodity – for the women of Coba.
With many books, there is one particular strength, but I felt this one excelled on all levels. It kept a great pace from start to finish, the society was fascinating, and the characters all felt unique. The Last Hawk also had a lot of diversity and it would be too narrow to classify it as a science fiction adventure or romantic science fiction. There was politics, action, focus on character relationships with some romance, and some elements of hard science fiction.
Although this novel is told from the perspective of several different characters, the main point of view character is Kelric, the Imperial heir from an empire with gender equality where his sister could be the next Imperator as easily as he. It’s hard not to love and empathize with Kelric. Not only does quiet, reserved Kelric have no freedom due to being an outsider but also due to being a male in a world dominated by females. Coba is a study in complete gender reversal from the normal patriarchy – the women make the rules and decisions, the women pursue the men, the women only want to marry virgins, and the women have certain expectations for how men should behave.
Matriarchies have been done before and just making the society function exactly like a patriarchy could make it seem stale, but it did not even though it was not very subtle. I’ve read many books in which the female lead is in the middle of a love triangle, but I honestly cannot think of a single book where the main male protagonist was part of one. In The Last Hawk, the man is the exotic beauty pursued by hordes of women, the one with an ability that makes him special (his mastery of Quis). By writing from the perspective of the hero, the feminist aspects never seem heavy-handed or preachy. It’s very clear that Kelric is equal to the women, not inferior. Also, each woman is very different and some are more sexist than others. One manager believed all men should dress in robes and only smile at their wives, and another caused a stir by promoting a man to a position previously only held by females.
In addition to the matriarchy, the culture is defined by Quis and its role in the civilization. For centuries, everyone has played Quis, a game played with colored dice. Wars are not waged through battle but via the game. One of the strongest assets to a manager is her Calani and Calani who have belonged to other estates are particularly prized for their knowledge and the political advantage the estate ruler gains from it. The most influential Quis players put some of themselves into the game and as various rulers play with each other, the ideas spread throughout the twelve estates. Quis is also used for figuring out scientific and mathematic concepts.
At times, I did have to suspend my disbelief with this novel but it was good enough that I mostly told my brain to just shut up and enjoy the story. The main part I had to quit thinking about was how it was possible for Quis to be able to convey so much. The way it was described with dice and colors that had some symbolism and a few rules about which shapes and colors could be next to each other made it seem very simple. This was explained when Kelric was first learning the game and could be attributed to taking baby steps. It was vague enough later that I decided to just go with it, especially since I loved the concept, and after that, I could find explanations for the other parts I found a bit incredulous. Initially, Kelric’s aptitude for Quis seemed believable since he had an internal computer system that helped him. Ever since his injury, this system had been malfunctioning and it was soon unable to help him, though, but he still continued to become an amazing player. It does make sense that he would be better at it than average due to his more advanced knowledge of science, math, and military strategy and would account for him being a genius at it. Also, every woman thought Kelric was beautiful, which seemed a bit over the top, but could also be explained by the fact that he was an exotic foreigner, plus his family had dabbled in genetic engineering. This also did not bother me too much since it was very much a reversal of the usual woman who is loved by every man who sees her. The aspect that I found most difficult to swallow was how willing several of these women were to trust a foreigner who seemed to have some dangerous tendencies. However, some women were more accepting than others and it was explained that Deha believed in him because she understood him from playing Quis with him. The others just wanted to like him because they thought he was pretty and it is true that people can be blinded by beauty.
The Last Hawk is one of those rare books with an entertaining story, great characters, and a fantastic culture. It’s easily my favorite book I have read so far this year.