The Risen Empire (Succession, Book 1)
by Scott Westerfeld
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Andrew Brooks
Tor Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319982
Date: 22 July 2008 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Scott Westerfeild's The Risen Empire, Book One of Succession, is space opera on crack. Fast-paced, literally jumping from scene to scene like and action packed SF flick, this book rarely drags as Westerfield blazes through to the cliff-hanger ending. That's part of the good news for those of you out there craving a space opera series in which the title contains neither the words "Star" or "Wars." The bad news is that the constant shifting of narrative viewpoint can also be this book's greatest flaw. But readers will be happy to know that it doesn't take away from the fact that The Risen Empire is a great read.
Set in a universe a few millennia in the future from ours, The Risen Empire focuses on the beginnings of a social coup of sorts. In Westerfield's future death has been conquered by the undead Emperor, but only for the elite and those who make great sacrifices in the Empire's service. Captain Laurent Zai of the Imperial Navy is one of them, if he plays his cards right, will be up for immortality. When the novel opens Laurent is in command of a hostage rescue, one in which the hostage is the undead Emperor's own sister-a little undead girl who is essentially worshipped as a god. Needless to say, Zai won't get that promotion to undead if he messes this one up.
The novel then switches around a bit, in an attempt to show what's really at stake with the hostage rescue attempt. We meet Nara Oxham, an idealistic senator who will refuse immortality when her time comes because she believes that the undead, and their unchanging ways, are stagnating the empire. I wouldn't say that she and Zai become star-crossed lovers in only a few pages, but it happens fairly quickly. But Westerfield, using those narrative hops in the timeline, manages to make it seem genuine and unforced. And this is essential to the choices both characters make later on. Hinges on it, in fact.
But the novel isn't solely centered around Zai and Oxham. Westerfield also provides viewpoints for a world-sized AI, a house (a pretty neat touch, actually), and a member of the Rix-humans who have embraced technology so fully that they're actually part machine. Think the Borg from Star Trek, although Westerfield provides rationale and heart for the Rix, instead of her being mindless villain out to advance the plot.
The strength of this book is Westerfield's ability to craft intelligent characters, to provide interesting technological concepts and to set them against a fascinating back-drop that doesn't seem too contrived or a rip-off of other space opera novels. He does this while speeding through the plot, though, and that's where I see a minor flaw in The Risen Empire. Action is good but, for me, character is king. I understand the sense of pace he was shooting for, especially in the actual hostage rescue attempt, but the continual flashing was a minus for me. Just as I was starting to really get wrapped up in things, the novel switched to something else.
Which brings me to my last critique. The book ends right at the penultimate point in the novel. Now luckily I had the second one to delve right into, but I can imagine the frustration of someone who has picked this book up and then closes it on that note. Reader, beware that if you pick this one up and you like it after the first fifty pages you must go and buy the second, and final, book in the series.
Recommended for all SF fans. Just don't expect the tiniest bit of closure by this novel's close.