Galactic empires have been a staple of SF for many, many years, but the one presented here is quite different. Based on the idea that there is just one individual properly suited to be Empress and one suited to be the Pretender to the throne, each individual is endlessly cloned and appropriately trained to fill their defined role. But in the latest triumph by the Pretender, Suu-Suu, one of the scientists charged with the keeping of the embryos of the Empress, flees to the forgotten colony world of Maya, long isolated from the Empire, taking the embryos with her. The world of Maya, ignorant of the happenings in the empire, has proceeded on its own development path, a colony world split into two factions of (nominally) normal humans and the Changed, people who have been genetically enhanced to interface with a computer AI. But all of this is just background, not really part of the main story line, a pity, I think, as the full development of this societal structure would have been extremely intriguing.
Against this background Lewitt places the story of Della, apparent member of the Changed who becomes infatuated with one of the 'lesser' humans, Arsen, and bears a child by him, Anselm. Arsen becomes the leader of an abortive revolt against the Changed, protesting the human's treatment by the Changed and their abysmal living conditions. When Arsen is executed for his part in the revolt, the stage is set for Della and her son to continue the fight, each in their own way.
During the course of their struggles, each of them journeys down a road of self-discovery, a slowly dawning awareness of the Empire and the role of Maya and the genetically enhanced humans in the larger picture. It is this journey that is main attraction of this book, leading Lewitt's characters and the reader into the realms of philosophical reality, personal identity, the influence of environment versus heredity, fate against free will, prejudice, and the influence of other's expectations on an individual's choice of actions. Della and Anselm are both well drawn believable people, even if neither is the paragon of virtue. However, most of the other characters are flat stick-figures, merely there as props for the action.
The story construction is somewhat odd, starting from Della's memoirs at the end of the revolution, changing in the middle to Anselm's point of view as the revolution is just beginning. This construction only partially works, as at times it allows the good use of foreshadowing, at others it spoils the suspense, leaving a certain level of confusion in its wake and leading to an odd, not-quite-there atmosphere.
The prose style is adequate, but at times more detailed descriptions of places and everyday happenings would have been helpful. I found myself floundering a couple of times trying to imagine a particular scene with too few signposts to direct me. The apparently complex structure of the Changed's society is merely hinted at, not fleshed out in great detail, so Della's position within and actions to control that society remain somewhat ambiguous and nebulous.
A very ambitious work, with potentially tremendous thematic concepts and ideas, enough for three books of this length, but not quite executed well enough to make the story vibrant and demanding.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)