Notes on a couple of space opera reads I've done lately:
:: I greatly enjoyed Andre Norton's Moon of Three Rings a few months back, so more recently I read another by her, The Zero Stone. Where Moon of Three Rings was more planetary romance than space opera, The Zero Stone actually is full-on space opera.
Murdoc Jern is a jeweler by trade, who has learned the ropes of the business from his father and is now traveling the galaxy with a business associate, trading in rare gems from many different worlds, when his associate is killed and Jern has to make his escape by taking refuge aboard another ship. Jern also possesses a ring whose stone is deeply powerful and deeply mysterious -- the "Zero Stone" of the title -- and it soon becomes clear that everyone is basically after him for the stone.
Eventually his only trusted companion is a brilliant psychic cat named Eet. (Well, he's an alien who is very cat-like, not an actual cat.) With Eet at his side, Jern must evade numerous villains and adversaries in order to win his freedom. I don't want to say more than that, because the story is fairly rollicking and wide-ranging, despite its mere 221 pages in the old edition that I own. The story takes us to odd worlds and shows us interesting aliens, all the while telling a fairly gripping tale about greed and peril and freedom.
I find reading older science fiction novels refreshing, in a way. The authors of the 1950s and 1960s had to take a "get in, tell the tale, get out" approach to storytelling, packing their galaxy-spanning notions along with interesting characters and drama into much shorter books than are the norm today. I love a florid and long epic as much as the next person, but there's often something just invigoratingly pleasant about reading a book that has an epic story in less than half the length of an almost-standard novel today.
(I've now discovered that The Zero Stone has a sequel called Uncharted Stars, which I just happen to already own. Huzzah!)
:: More modern, and thus more epic and thus longer, is In Conquest Born by CS Friedman. This is a big story told on a very large canvas. Two races, the Braxana and the Azeans, have been at war for a very long time as their respective empires have spread across the stars. Our focus is on one warrior from each culture: Zatar from the Braxana, and Anzha from the Azeans, who find themselves endlessly opposing each other, bringing the endless war to a deeper and more personal level. This book is as much character study as it is story, alternating between Zatar and Anzha as their respective lives become more and more intertwined as the book progresses.
While I liked In Conquest Born a great deal, I must confess that I wanted to like it more than I did. The characters are well-drawn and well-developed; they are complex, with motivations that aren't always easy to understand. The main problem I had with the book was that it often felt somewhat disjointed. There are times when the book doesn't feel so much like a novel as a collection of inter-related short stories and novellas about the same characters. Also, there are quite a few plot threads that never seem to go anywhere or get visited again. Those aren't deal-breaking quibbles, though; I greatly enjoyed In Conquest Born and recommend it.