In the Courts of the Crimson Kings
|Author||S. M. Stirling|
|Genre||alternate history, science fiction|
|LC Class||PS3569.T543 I6 2008|
|Preceded by||The Sky People|
The story takes place on the planet Mars in an alternate solar system where probes from the United States of America and the Soviet Union find intelligent life and civilizations on both Venus and Mars. The book is heavily influenced by the works of writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and Leigh Brackett, among others.
It is a sequel to The Sky People, which is set on Venus. Stirling later wrote a short story prequel, "Sword of Zar-Tu-Kan", which was published in the 2013 anthology Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
The novel begins with a prologue set at the 20th World Science Fiction Convention (Chicon III) in 1962 where a large group of famous science fiction authors in attendance are watching a television broadcast of an American space probe as it lands on an inhabited Mars. Those present include Frederik and Carol Pohl, Poul Anderson, H. Beam Piper, Guest of Honor Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Robert and Virginia Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp, John W. Campbell, Frank Herbert, and Leigh Brackett. Heinlein mentions an idea for a novel about Mars he had had but set aside when "the preliminary orbital telescope reports" had come in. (In actual history the completed book, Stranger in a Strange Land, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel at this convention.) The authors watch and comment as the broadcast from the probe reveals a Martian canal and wildlife and then, startlingly, the arrival of human-like Martians in a "land ship" who haul the probe off.
The main action of the novel commences in 2000, at which time both the US and Sino-Soviet "Eastbloc" have bases on the planet. The US has its base off in the wilderness away from the major cities while the Eastbloc has placed its base inside the remnants of the Tollamune emperor's realm within Olympus Mons, a ruling dynasty that once ruled all Mars. Although in decline, Martian civilization is significantly older than that of Earth and has considerable expertise in genetic engineering, to the point that Martian engines, ranged weapons, and other complex equipment are actually advanced creatures specifically bred and engineered for certain tasks.
Archeologist Jeremy Wainman is sent by the U.S. Aero-Space Force to explore the lost city of Rema-Dza out in the "Great Beyond", or the Martian desert. The USASF also hires a female Martian mercenary, Teyud za-Zhalt, who leads the expedition to the city. While fighting a pack of feral engines under the city, Jeremy and Teyud fall in love.
It becomes apparent that there is more to Teyud than she initially recounts. When the expedition discovers the lost "Invisible Crown" of the Tollamune emperors, a symbol of authority that gives the wearer immense power, everyone is startled to find that Teyud can wear it even though only someone from the Tollamune dynasty is capable of doing so. Teyud admits that she is the illegitimate daughter of the current emperor. Now the former mercenary commands the power of an ancient technological artifact allegedly created by the aliens that terraformed Mars and Venus, and seeded them with life from Earth.
Jeremy and Teyud soon discover that there are Tollamune dynastic factions who know of Teyud's ancestry and are looking to either kill or capture her. Jeremy himself is captured while attempting to protect Teyud. This forces her, with the help of her father's soldiers, to attempt to rescue him from the fortress of a potential usurper, who had been displaced from the imperial succession after the Emperor recognises his daughter's legitimacy. The Crown Prince is later defeated after playing a game of Atanj (Martian chess), using people as the pieces, including Teyud and Jeremy. Teyud's father also dies passing the title of emperor to her.
With the Crown Prince dead and a Tollamune once again ruling all of Mars, Teyud takes Jeremy as her prince consort. The couple are visited by an ancient alien computer program which cryptically announces that they will proceed to the next stage. Though both are unsure what this means, but they soon discover that three interplanetary "Gates" have opened up on Earth, Venus and Mars, each leading to another world. The book ends with Teyud and Jeremy visiting "Vow'da" (Moon-World) the new world on the other side of the Martian gate.