Review: Unseen Demons

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Review: Unseen Demons

“Have we ever been able to conduct any kind of communication with them at all?”

“Are you kidding? We haven’t even been able to alert them we’re here.”

Long-time fans of author Adam-Troy Castro are probably already familiar with his Andrea Cort series. For everyone else (and for those of us who love getting ahold of a story that we haven’t had a chance to read yet), Mr. Castro has been releasing his individual stories in e-reader format, including just this month his 2002 novella, Unseen Demons.

The very first of the Andrea Cort stories written, it’s also chronologically one of the furthest along in her timeline, taking place just a year before the events in the two Andrea Cort novels. It finds the Diplomatic Corps Counselor trying to bring Emil Sandburg – a remorseless serial killer – to justice on a planet where he brutally murdered several members of the native population. Unfortunately the natives are completely incapable of delivering justice, because they’re not even aware that a crime took place.

A few details about Andrea Cort’s history have changed since this first story was written, but in all the important ways the Andrea here is the same self-identifying monster she’s always been. She’s still a brutally effective representative of the Dip Corps, intelligent, beautiful, and impossible to intimidate. And she still projects a carefully-constructed image of herself as a charmless iron-cold bitch to cover the fact that inside she’s a charmless iron-cold bitch, with a core of misery and rage. This is where the reader first learns about the tragedy that shaped her entire life. Something happened to Andrea when she was eight years old, and in many ways she’s never gotten over it. And never will.

It doesn’t stop her from facing down and insulting as many powerful figures as she thinks she needs to. Andrea’s dialog is always a hell of a lot of fun to read, and even the people who are horrified by the events that made her notorious end up being impressed with her in spite of themselves.

“With all due respect, sir, I’ve spent my career arbitrating legal disputes with alien cultures. And I strongly suspect this particular misinterpretation has less to do with Counsellor Rhaig being a Tchi than it does with Counsellor Rhaig being a flaming asshole.”

Everything I love about Castro’s skill with world-building is on display here. In fact, there’s even more of that than there usually is. The story takes place on the world of Catarkhus, home of a species that has only just recently been designated as sentient. The planet has at least four Embassies from four different races, Human (or Hom.Sap), Bursteeni, Riirgaan, and Tchi, and each embassy is set up to reflect the different environments of their ambassadors. It’s world-building within world-building. Then you throw in all the random bits of information about other worlds and religions and race-names that are hard to write down because they include musical notes instead of words, and you get a universe that only gets larger and more fascinating the more you hear about it.

The plot is another thing that gets more complex as it goes along. It’s bad enough that a member of the Hom.Sap embassy has been murdering natives, not just because it’s a huge diplomatic incident, but also because it gives all the other sentient species in the universe one more reason to dismiss the human race as a bunch of savages who should just stick to their home planet and keep killing each other forever. (Current events makes that a hard position to argue with. I’m being a little grim, aren’t I? NOT SORRY.)

It isn’t just the acts of one human that are the problem though. The big problem is that if the Hom.Sap government decides to extradite Sandburg, this just confirms that Humans are a bunch of arrogant savages who have no respect for the right of another sentient race to judge and punish criminals they way they see fit. But the very nature of the Catarkhan race means they can’t judge and punish a criminal. They don’t even know the criminal exists. They might not even be aware that the Catarkhans he murdered are gone, if they even knew they were there in the first place. Turning Sandburg over to the Catarkhans is exactly the same as letting him go. There are literally no good options.

Andrea’s history, the inner workings of the Catarkhans (or as little as anyone can really know, which isn’t much), and just why the hell Sandburg was murdering Catarkhans in the first place are all gradually revealed as Andrea threads her way through this diplomatic minefield. As she does in many of her stories, she eventually finds the answer by verbally flipping a table and forcing everyone to see that they were asking the wrong damn question. It’s an answer that promises to cause more problems down the road, and her methods end up costing her at least one friendship that she never asked for and didn’t think she deserved anyway.

She does get some insight into her own history, and a new purpose which leads to the events in Emissaries From the Dead, and then The Third Claw of God, both excellent books which I suggest you read now before the next story in the series, A Stab Of The Knife, comes out next year.