RogerBW's Blog

The Risen Empire, Scott Westerfeld 04 October 2016

2003 military SF, first book of Succession. Captain Laurent Zai of the Imperial frigate Lynx is attempting to rescue the Child Empress from invading cyborgs. Only that makes it sound dire, and it's actually rather good.

First, be warned: this is only half a book. The original manuscript was too long for Tor to want to take a chance on an unknown author, so they split it into two cheaper volumes, but failed to mark them as such. Be aware of this going in: there are no resolutions here, and there is a cliffhanger.

The Emperor is immortal. (Shades of Cole and Bunch's Sten series, only where the tone of that was generally "what fun" commando adventure at least at first, this is rather more serious.) The immortality process is granted to faithful servants of the Emperor: so there's an ever-increasing number of immortal "dead", who by their nature tend to be conservative, and the Emperor is the most conservative of them all.

Which means that there is room for a political movement that is genuinely in favour of death: sure, it's not much fun for the people who die, but without it the society itself becomes moribund.

"Seventeen hundred years ago, the Eighty Worlds were the most advanced technological power in this arm," she said. "Now look at us. The Rix, the Tungai, the Fahstuns have all surpassed us."

That's not the sort of thing one expects to find in whiz-bang military SF. Nor is a sympathetic enemy: one of those invading cyborgs survives the initial action sequence and carries on with a covert operation, and I at least found myself hoping she would succeed even as I also hoped the Imperials would succeed in stopping her. Well played, Mr Westerfeld.

There's also lots of loving description of imaginary tech (indeed, I picked this up because I spotted it in the bibliography of GURPS Ultra-Tech), and even the "backward" Imperials have plenty of self-reconfiguring smart-metal, millimetric-scale remotely-piloted observation drones, and such like. There's no FTL travel in this multi-world empire, which always makes things more of a challenge, and even that's handled well. (All right, there's a mention late on of "ten thousand gigawatts per second", but I was enough in sympathy with the book not to be entirely disgusted even by that.) The tech is described in enthusiastic detail but rarely infodumped; it's mentioned when it comes up, but the reader new to SF may well flounder at first as lots of tiny and irrelevant-seeming details get thrown out for later assembly.

The plotting is the real high point here, though. There are multiple factions attempting to achieve particular objectives, and one gets the feeling of a sliding-block puzzle: person A does action B to get state C, but this also triggers state D, which person E wants to reverse, so they do action F, which…. The great tragedy is that many of the opposing factions are not in fact evil by each other's lights, and if it weren't for some of the exceptions this could all be sorted out with a whole lot less dying.

Captain Zai is one of the main viewpoint characters; the other is Senator Nara Oxham, one of those pro-death politicians, who has personal reasons to keep Zai alive when Imperial politics require his sacrifice. Both of them come over as solid people, with pasts (partly shown in flashback) and multiple interests, and even the more minor viewpoint characters are complex enough to surprise occasionally. And Westerfeld achieves the near-impossible, in that I was never disappointed when the narrative switched to a different story. (Oh, this is largely a post-gender world: it still affects pronouns and romance, but nobody cares what sex someone is when deciding what jobs they can do.)

My only reservation about starting the second half is that it's always easier to be interesting while building up tension than while resolving it. Followed by The Killing of Worlds. Note to buyers: there has been a reissue of both books in a single volume, helpfully also titled The Risen Empire, so get a page count (350ish vs 750ish) to know what you're buying.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 01:28pm on 05 October 2016

    I have the Orbit UK version, which is both volumes in one fat book (called The Risen Empire). I must re-read it sometime, since I thoroughly enjoyed it first time around.

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