The Risen Empire - Scott Westerfeld

Another review for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

The Risen Empire
Book One of Succession
Scott Westerfeld
Tor Publishers
ISBN 0765305550

Summary: A polished modern space opera, with an appealing mix of smoothly transparent prose, vivid visuals, gothic death-cults, Roman-esque politics, and nanotech magic. Oh, and not one, but two love stories. And a murder mystery. And a government conspiracy. Sounds good? Is good. Downsides: it's the start of a series, Succession (check the title page, you won't see it on the cover), and as such feels incomplete. (I don't imagine this to be a long-running series, I suspect this will be a tightly linked duology or trilogy rather than an opened ended series.) In addition, although this is a fine novel, it's not startlingly good, giving the reader the cool, detached view-point of an all-knowing observer, rather than ratcheting up the emotion and putting the reader through the mill. The author has certainly written more original material before, and I look forward to seeing what the sequel(s) makes of this book. Rating? Solid B, this should appeal to those who like character driven space opera in the non-military tradition of, say, Bujold or maybe even Meaney or Reynolds.

Quick aside:
The Risen Empire was reviewed here recently by the humble John Novak; I've resisted the temptation to go back and read what he thought (though I recall a cool approval mixed with rage over the lack of "Book One" on the cover.) You might enjoy going to Google for a contrast, while John himself may find this useful in calibrating my reviews - he did wonder if my taste coincided with his, or whether I just managed to make books sound as though they might.

The Risen Empire is a space opera. A fairly good one, an enjoyable read. Rather American space opera, quite different in tone to the newer wave of gritty SF coming out from the UK at the moment. It's quite a commercial book; exploding spaceships, cool nanotech, lots of toys, forbidden love, ancient Egyptian style death-cults, AIs, simplistic cult-of-personality character driven politics, (with a Senate and a Rubicon of sorts, it loosely feels like a simple Roman Empire, under one of the saner Emperors, think about the model familiar from Star Wars sequels for a pop example). Plenty of militaristic action sequences, but thankfully little of mil-SF info-dumping familiar from certain publishers.

The Emperor is Dead, long live the Emperor. The Emperor of the human empire is dead; he lives, along with his equally undead Child Empress sister, due to a biological symbiont. This eternal ruler offers this greatest of all biological gifts to his supporters; The Risen. These 'Grey' people tend to be the senior military, the rich, the landed, the gentry. Those alive, or who have no intention of squabbling for sufficient Imperial attention to be Risen, the 'Pink', are gradually losing all their power to the ever increasing ranks of the dead, who, naturally, tend to be fiercely loyal to their Emperor. Much of this, obviously, derives from the Egyptian model, but with a light touch. Personally, I'd have welcomed a more macabre feel to the whole thing; I've never gamed, but was taken by the Warhammer mythos at a young age. I blame them for hiring Ian Watson to write some sharecrops. Good grief, that's like getting Hitchcock to do a TV commercial... Anyway, I've a fondness for stress-riddled, post-technological empires ruled by rotting corpses. (The rest of the GW SF sharecrops didn't work for me.) Does this make me a bad person?

Life in the Empire is good; things have stablished at a reasonably high tech level, but there is a limit. AIs are not welcome in the Empire. Which is due, in part, to the Imperial war against the Rix. The war is useful; it helps to explain how such a militaristic society is maintained. I've always liked big spaceships crewed on the naval model, but it's not an idea that stands up to analysis really. The conservative Risen military command locked into a long war with an inconstant threat helps maintain suspension-of-disbelief.

The Rix are a familiar SF enemy; basically human, they worship a machine deity, honouring the emergent properties of complex networks. The Rix are a welcome change from the usual machine cult charactisation of the Borg, to pick the most obvious parallel. They are fast raiders, their all-female and highly enhanced warriors striking against the Empire's fringes, seeding AI minds on those planets attacked. This is a religious war. (Always fun.) As this is space opera, we get plenty of armoured marines duking it out on the surface - this, like the big ships, isn't a cutting edge SF idea, and can't often be explained, but it's one of those things I do enjoy in my fiction!

So, that's the setting. Now, the plot. The Risen Empire opens swiftly, a very clever spaceship dog-fight is taking place. Read on, then adjust your expectations. The Child Empress has been taken hostage. She is being held by the Rix, on a planet hit by a sudden and un-expected Rix incursion during a period of relative peace. This is a disaster in the making.

The poor basta^H^H^H^H^H military officer charged with saving the day is Laurent Zai, of the Imperial Frigate Lynx. He faces the Blade of Error should be fail, the commander of such a mission must accept that the failure means an Error of Blood. No life after death. A dishonourable ending for a warrior from a staunchly Grey world and tradition. A hero already, being the tortured survivor of a Rix capture, the stakes are high. Higher than normal even; Laurent is in love.

Senator Nara Oxham is pink to her core. A liberal, a telepath by accident of environment and genetics, a Senator of the Risen Empire. She is a secularist, opposed to the Risen, a believer in the human qualities of society, a believer in change, growth, and man's better nature. She lives immersed in the data-flows, crafting legislation, sealed by blood, to serve her society. She is appointed for the long term, living much of her life in stasis, emerging to re-direct events every few years. She is priviliged beyond most, and yet utterly opposed to the Emperor's iron grip on the Empire, and to his Risen elite.

Who else? Well, there's no shortage of view-points or secondary characters. Nara's house, an AI with a world to itself. (One of the best written characters in SF in my opinion; loved it!) There's H_rd, a Rix commando, the last of her creche, stranded on-planet after the mission to attack the Child Empress finishes. There's Rana Harter, a minor military technician. There's Katherine Hobbe's; Laurent Zai's Executive Officer. Master Pilot Jocim Marx, and Private Bassiritz - either sadly under-written characters for use later, or well turned-out Chekhov's guns for this volume alone.

Which reminds me; chapters are simply delineated like working notes: Emperor. Captain. Senator. Executive Officer. Commando. Pilot. One important ommision from this roll call so far; Alexander. The real reason for the Rix incursion. An AI, a compound mind. A Rix mind, growing from the network on an Imperial World. A world with access to Imperial Archives. Archives which hold important information. The Rix do not Rise; they prefer slow upgrade, ever increasing their mechanical percentage, they slowly grow into a physical immortality of sorts. The plot spirals around this core, the tangled web of relationships, political, military, personal, combining to offer several views of how things are unfolding.

I liked this novel rather a lot, and tore through it in a day. It's easy reading, but I mean this a compliment. The writing is polished, moving easily from the mundane to the galactic in scale, smoothly descriptive without being wordy. The author's 'voices' for the characters are simply delineated, and usually the characteristic comments and attitudes never fails to amuse. Gentle observational asides are the order of the day. This novel has some decent ideas too (lovely gravity being a favourite), and although some serial numbers still show through on the main elements, the synthesis so far is good. I'll reserve judgement until I see the sequel(s) and see where the plot ends up, partly because the whole thing ends on a rather enormous cliff-hanger. I do have a complaint though; this feels like the equivalent of Commercial Fat Fantasy. Perhaps an unfair thing to say - after all, comparison with Bujold would be fair, and Bujold writes popularist SF which nonetheless garners respect.

So why pick on Westerfeld for this? Evolution's Darling would be one reason. Sure, it had it flaws here and there, but it crackled with invention, and was genuinely different. I enjoyed it, warts and all. It made me think, it made me feel, it surprised me. Evolution's Darling wasn't way-out small press experimental SF - it was smoothly written and delivered everything one might expect from a commercial writer, but strayed far from the expected plotline, gleefully tearing up the Sf rulebook along the way. The Risen Empire by contrast sticks to the expected plotline, and uses many conventional, even cliched, devices but makes amends by sprinkling some baroque decoration around the main threads. I just can't but feel that this would have been a much more interesting book if some of that decoration had been allowed a greater flourish, if the cool detached tone was abandonded for something headier. (In saying that, a certain plot thread, contrasting the lives of H_rd, the Rix commando, and Rana Harter, a minor Imperial figure, manages to produce something more emotional, something in which we read about the characters, and not about the world and events surrounding them.) I predict Succession will sell well for Mr Westerfeld, and hope he uses his new clout with his publishers to have a crack at something more off-beat as his next project.

An example page; not from the start, as there are some authorial flourishes best left unspoilt there.

"The constellation of eyes glistened, reflecting the sunlight that
penetrated the cultured-diamond doors sliding closed being Senator Nara
Oxham. The ocular glint raised her hackles, marking as it did the eyes of a
noctural predator. On Oxham's home planet Vasthold, there ranged
human-hunting bears, paracoyotes, and feral nightdogs. On some deep,
instinctive level, Nara Oxham knew those eyes to be warnings.
The creatures were splayed - fifteen or twenty of them - on an invisible
bed of lovely gravity. They wafted like polychrome clouds down the wide,
breezy hallways of the Emperor's inner palace, carried by the ambient
movement of air. Her apathy bracelet was set to high, as always here in the
crowded capital, but sufficient sensitivity remained to feel some measure of
their inhuman thoughts. They regarded her cooly as they drifted past,
secure in their privilege, in their demigodhood, and in their speechless
wisdom, accumulated over sixteen centuries of langour. Of course, their
species had never, even in the millennia before Imperial decree had elevated
them to semidivine status, doubted its innate superiority.
They were imperious consorts, these personal familiars of His Risen
Majesty. They were Felis Domesticus Immortalis.
They were, in a word, cats.
And in a few more words, cats who would never die.
Senator Nara Oxham hated cats.
[...] Nara Oxham's constituency was an entire planet, but here in the
Diamond Palace the mighty senator found herself intimidated by the

Posted: Tue - June 3, 2003 at 12:27 AM