RogerBW's Blog

The Killing of Worlds, Scott Westerfeld 08 October 2016

2003 military SF, second book of Succession. Captain Laurent Zai tries to win a space battle; Senator Nara Oxham tries to survive imperial politics.

This is the second half of the book that began with The Risen Empire. I did have one small reservation going in: that building up tension is easier than resolving it. And there is one bit that falls a little flat at first: the Emperor's Secret, the thing that has been a significant motivation in large parts of the action of both books, is eventually revealed, and, well, it doesn't seem so very terrible after all. Except, of course, that it means that millions upon millions of people are finding out that they have been lied to. And at that point it doesn't matter what the actual secret was.

The major narrative strands deal with an extended space battle against a superior force, including pauses for emergency repair, and politics back on the Imperial homeworld. I think Westerfeld's heart is really in that space battle, which manages to achieve technothriller levels of detail while still being very much about the people involved in it. The cascades of decisions and consequences that were such a feature of the first book are here too, in microcosm: weapon A does damage B which combines with heroic engineering feat C to cause problem D. It feels genuinely uncertain whether anyone involved will survive.

However smart these new flockers were, though, the captain had made one point with which Marx had to agree. Cruder Imperial technology had an advantage at high velocities. Flockers and piloted drones used up a lot of their mass being clever, and cleverness didn't always pay off when a firefight took place in the blink of an eye. Sand was as dumb as a stone club, but its destructiveness increased with every kilometer per second.

All right, there is the unspoken assumption that when a sapient AI copies itself from one data medium to another the original will mysteriously be erased, but hey. There's also a very fine smart home in a remote location.

Now that summer had arrived, the views from six balconies revealed gardens and artificial waterfalls all the way to the horizon. The house had littered neighboring peaks with outpost colonies of self-sustaining butterflies, their mirror wings reflecting sunlight to keep plants alive and water flowing, cast artful shadows, and bring the pale reds of the arctic sunset to three hundred sixty degrees of vista.

But fundamentally this is always about the people, human and otherwise. They are interesting as individuals and become more so when they interact, and I stayed up to finish this book, something I rarely do any more. I cared about these people.

Perfect, she thought. To encounter fear for the first time while falling—at sixty meters per second and without a parachute—into a heavily guarded enemy facility.

"Love," h_rd said bitterly. The rampant wind tore the word from her mouth without comment.

Don't read this book without first reading The Risen Empire (and see notes there on combined editions). This book concludes an arc of story in a highly satisfactory way, though it certainly doesn't dot every i when speculating about how things will go after the narrative ends.

Probably my favourite book of the year to date.

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See also:
The Risen Empire, Scott Westerfeld

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