It’s an age-old debate in the speculative fiction community: what separates science fiction from fantasy? It sounds simple—magic and dragons on one side, phasers and spaceships on the other—but it’s not that straightforward in practice: how does one classify a spaceships and lasers story that incorporates magic (Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth), or a fantastical story grounded in real science (N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season)?
While the debate makes for an interesting intellectual exercise, the demarcation line between the genres is not, and has never been, clear-cut—so why not abandon it altogether and dive into the hazy in-between space known as science fantasy? You’ll find it’s fertile ground for storytelling.
Certainly ignoring these arbitrary points of division can make for tremendously fun stories. Case in point: K. Eason’s new book How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, which joyfully and brazenly embraces sci-fi and fantasy, magic and space, the topes of space opera and those of the classical fairy tale. It’s a story with sumptuously dressed kings, queens, and courtiers; cloning, spaceships, the fae, and even a princess imprisoned in a tower (though the tower in question is located on a space station).
Our protagonist, Rory, is the first girl in generations born into the Thorne family, rulers of the powerful, interplanetary Thorne Consortium (there are some fairy-related reasons for the circumstances of her birth). In an archaic ceremony shortly after she is born, Rory is blessed by twelve kindly fairies, and cursed (in a fashion) by a thirteenth. The blessings include all sorts of good traits—kindness, courage, a proficiency for the harp—but the curse is more interesting: it promises she will, “find no comfort in illusion or platitude, and to know the truth when [she hears] it, no matter how well concealed by flattery, custom, or mendacity.”
In practice, this means that Rory “hears” the truth even when she’s being lied to, which does Saga‘s Lying Cat one better (speaking of delightful works of science fantasy).
As the eldest Thorne child, Rory grows up thinking she’s destined to inherit her father’s throne and eventually rule the Consortium, but her life, and the future of the multiverse, soon become a lot more complicated: her father is assassinated, and shortly thereafter, her mother gives birth to a son who, due to the ancient rules of succession, replaces Rory as the royal heir.
Relegated to the sidelines, Rory is betrothed to Prince Ivar of the far-off Free Worlds of Tadesh at age 16, and sent to live on a void-station called Urse until their wedding, planned to take place when she turns 18. The marriage is meant to secure peace between the Thorne Consortium and Tadesh, but Rory soon realizes nothing on Urse is what it seems, including Prince Ivar. She and her royal retinue quickly become entangled in the nefarious schemes of ruthless Tadeshi politician Vernor Moss, who is planning to use Rory as a pawn in order to seize power. Of course, Moss didn’t count on Rory being, well, Rory.
Intrigue, suspense, comedy, and even romance are the order of the day as Rory is pitted against a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Some SFF books rely on bloody conflict for their thrills and chills, and while this one has its share, a larger part of the enjoyment comes in following along as Rory uses her intelligence, wit, charm, and empathy to save herself, rather than resorting to violence. The gifts—and the curse—bestowed upon her by the fairies serve her well, but she must also rely on the help of others, including her loyal adviser Messer Rupert and a hard-hitting trio of body-maids—the battle-scarred veteran Grytt, and the inexperienced but fiercely loyal duo of Thorsdottir and Zhang—as well as a few unlikely, and not altogether reliable, allies on Urse.
Following this wonderful, varied, and often very funny cast of characters through the twists and turns of the plot is a delight. Rory herself is an irresistible point-of-view character: clever and capable, she is definitely not one to sit around waiting to be rescued, but she can also be as rash and foolish as any other teenager, especially one so hemmed in by custom and convention.
The blending of fantasy and science fiction creates a richly detailed and sumptuous world. Eason imagines a far-flung multiverse inhabited by xenos (aliens) and humans who have some distant memories of a time when they lived in one solar system, or maybe even on one planet. There is courtly intrigue, political shenanigans, and a magic of sorts; arithmancy is a learned skill that involves manipulating the mathematical principles which underlie the structure of the universe.
Describing a book as “The Princess Bride meets Princess Leia” (as the cover does) is making a bold claim, but as they say in fairy tales, if the glass slipper fits… Certainly How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse features a headstrong and brave princess who (mostly) has to come to her own rescue (“Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”); and the an anonymous, witty chronicler relaying her story to us has a style reminiscent of S. Morgernstern’s. By the time I finished reading it, I was certainly hooked, and ready to see where in the multiverse Rory and her gang of (more or less) loyal co-conspirators end up next. Thankfully, a sequel is on the way—whether sci-fi or fantasy, some things never change.