Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever (2019)

I’m a fan of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence novels. They are not perfect, but they have incredible worldbuilding. He created an amazing system that connects religion, magic and economy that make his world go round in a way that is imaginative, entertaining, but also, I believe, tells us something interesting about our world. One of the definitions of great genre fiction…

So, when the time came to spend one of my Audible credits, and I learned that Gladstone’s new novel is available, I decided to go for it. It’s not part of the Craft Sequence, but it was long (I always try to get a long listen for my credit πŸ˜‰ ) and I was in a mood for a nice space opera.

Author: Max Gladstone

Title: Empress of Forever

Format: Audiobook

Narrator: Natalie Naudus

Length: 19 hrs and 38 mins

Heh, and I was sorely disappointed. Not only I disliked this novel, I even judge his earlier works a bit more harshly – as some of the flaws here so visible were also present there, only hidden behind all the good stuff.

It doesn’t even start as a space opera. We meet our heroine, a kind of female Elon Musk with all the empathy and selflessness of the real-world one, on Earth in the near future. Stuff happens, and off she goes into far-future, kidnapped by a very powerful being that rules the universe.

Universe that I found pretty boring, inhabited by cultists and pirates, and demigods – which sounds more fun than it is πŸ˜‰ I found all the characters to be trope-ish, flat and boring, although less annoying than the self-righteous protagonist.

They travel, they fight… but with no emotional attachment to any of the characters, I could not make myself interested. It’s one of the dangers of Audiobooks – and I confess I succumbed to this several times – when you loose an interest, your thoughts tend to wonder away.

It did not really feel like a science fiction, more like a mediocre superhero movie, with barely sketched demigods destroying fleets and worlds. The main superheroine was conquering the enemies here just like she conquered her competitors in science and business back on Earth. I imagine if Elon Musk wrote a Mary Sue-ish fanfic it would result in something like that.

Gladstone’s main strength is worldbuilding, and while I don’t like the universe he created here, there is one interesting thing – The Cloud. It actually is a data cloud, and the inhabitants of this world have their souls uploaded there, which allows them to survive the death of their physical bodies – which has predictable consequences of lessening the cost of violence. There are also strange creatures that arrive in swarms to devour that cloud, providing justification and sort-of explanation for some of the wars and genocides going on.

At some point I started to question my positive view of the Craft Sequence. Characters there are also pretty flat, often, and the plots pretty simple. It works there, though, as it shows the beautiful machinery of an expertly constructed world. I enjoy seeing the cogs in motion, analysing the processes, making analogies with the processes that shape our world. Without that, Empress of Forever was wearisome.

I’ve read several reviews to find out what some people liked about this book. What caught my attention was a short text from Kirkus Reviews:

The power of love and/or friendship overcoming a single adversary is of course an overused trope, but Gladstone actually has a valid reason for using it here: He’s illustrating the danger of allowing one person to decide that she knows best and simply grab control of everythingβ€”even if that person is stratospherically intelligent and (at least initially) has good intentions. He also seems to be commenting on the dangers of the current Silicon Valley cult(ure), in which a company is driven by the quirks of one brilliant entrepreneur. An interesting and intellectually fertile enterprise.

Well, sure, that would be interesting and intellectually fertile, but I believe it should be either a YA novel half the size or a much more sophisticated, richer one. As the books is, I don’t think it’s that sophisticated and self-aware. I only finished this one because Audible allows you to accelerate, and I think parts I’ve listened to at 1.75 the regular speed.

My thirst for space opera wasn’t quenched by that, and the next credit went for Neal Asher’s Gridlinked. I do not share Ola’s admiration for that one, but it did the job. This one did not.

Score: 3/10

Not the lowest possible, but whatever was good here – had been done better, many times and by many writers, including Gladstone himself.

Natalie Naudus narrated it, and I don’t blame her for book’s faults, she couldn’t have saved it πŸ˜‰

34 thoughts on “Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever (2019)

  1. Yikes! I’ve had this on my TBR for a while, but I can’t imagine I’d feel any different about it than you did – those same flaws and tropes would grate on me. Too bad, it seemed to have such potential.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      It did, but there are so many better alternatives, like Asher’s Polity series I mention here… no need to waste our limited reading time πŸ˜‰

      Like

  2. Gladstone, that name rings a bell. Didn’t he write some Librarian oriented serial series? I have this vague recollection of dnf’ing something like that and I associate this name with it. Even if I’m wrong though, I certainly won’t be trying this.

    If you’re still thirsty for space opera, go for the Galaxy’s Edge books. Keep in mind that I really enjoyed Gridlinked too though πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Gridlinked was ok enough that I plan to keep my Audible subscription running for as long as needed to get all the Cormac books… he’s just nowhere near as good as Iain Banks πŸ˜›

      Gladstone invented and co-authored Bookburners, apparently, an urban fantasy series about a team that recovers magical artefacts for Vatican… rings a bell? I haven’t heard about it before.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bookburners, that was it. Pretty sure that got the blasphemy or authors to avoid tag from me.

        I’ll not debate about a Banks vs Asher, because I fall squarely on the other side. I also realize that Asher writes what his readers want while Banks seemed to think he was some sort of literati slumming it. That is the impression I got from the few books I read of the Culture (and disliked). I suspect like and dislike play a much larger part on my part anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have read four of the Craft books in publishing order (book 4 made me noggin hurt cause of that). So I was excited when I got a hold of Empress. I hated it and dnfed pretty quickly. I was seriously disappointed. Between the severe grumpitude of empress and how much I was annoyed by book 4, I have been hesitant to finish the Craft sequence. Did ye read all of them? I feel like each book in the publishing order gets a little worse even though the first one is still one of me favorites. Excellent review of a horrible book. Boring pirates. Ugh.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Maybe I was just too annoyed with this book at this point, but yes, even pirates failed to excite me πŸ˜‰

      Craft – I’ve only read two, actually, but I mean to read them all, they are on a large list of books I’m reasonably sure I’m going to like and want to read one day, when the mood is right πŸ™‚

      Like

  4. So, not only did you hate it, it made you like the rest of his stuff less? Ouch. I’ve not heard much good about this book, but this may be the most critical review I’ve seen! Regardless, this’ll be one to skip for me. Thanks for the anti-rec!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      You’re welcome πŸ™‚ Well, was it the worst book ever? No, definitely not. But it was a huge disappointment, measuring against my high expectations, as a fan of his previous works. And recently I’ve re-read a few of my reviews of books I did not like, and I found I was a bit too lenient on them πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      πŸ™‚

      You made me re-read it to make sure it’s not too strong… but no, I believe it shows how I felt reading the novel. Very subjective, yes, but honest.

      I read “Empress…” some time ago, made some notes, but only sat down to write it all this week. Distance somehow makes me harsher, usually…

      Like

  5. I’m not going to comment on your Asher comment, your devotion to Banks is known far and wide, and I suspect you’d swallow your tongue before you’d ever admit the supremacy of Asher over Banks πŸ˜›
    As for this, well – after this review I don’t think I’m going to read anything by Gladstone in the foreseeable future, Craft sequence included. Too many better books out there πŸ˜€

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Heh, I know I’m not doing him any service in this post, but Craft Sequence, at least two first volumes, are really very good. You definitely should try at least one, just to see his worldbuilding ideas at work πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Haha, that stupid green helmet πŸ˜‚Don’t tell me that the cover sold you!
    I need to go on with his Fantasy series, Iβ€˜ve only read the first two books and then lost contact somehow

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mmmm… While I liked the first book in the Crafts sequence, the second one was somehow disappointing and kept me from moving forward with the series. Your comments on this one are far from encouraging and I believe I will pass on it, although the Crafts sequence might still be in the game… πŸ˜‰
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh man, I recognize the cover from my many online visits to bookstores and have managed to stay clear from it for unknown reasons. Now I have all the right reasons not to waste time on it! The Cloud idea sounds great but, like you’ve mentioned, it’s not new. In fact, it immediately made me think of that one Black Mirror episode regarding people being uploaded to a cloud storage system! Great honest review, Piotrek. It’s nice to see you write up a review like in the good ol’ days, my friend! πŸ˜‰

    P.S. Yes, I won’t stop annoying you until you do it more often πŸ˜€

    Like

    1. piotrek

      Thanks for the kind words πŸ™‚ That’s the plan, to get back in the game. We’ll see if I manage to pull this through πŸ˜‰

      The book… not a very encouraging cover, and not a very good content. Being able to save one’s essence in some cloud does sound nice, though… I need to see the rest of Black Mirror, definitely, I got stuck somewhere in the middle, I don;t even remember where exactly.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve never heard of this author and, I’ll not lie, reading this review kind of put me off trying him. Nothing worse than a current read/listen making you judge older works harsher than you have.

    Your Elon Musk comparison for the character made me laugh. First blog to do that in a while πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

  10. buriedinprint

    Aw, too bad it wasn’t what you were hoping for. I’m trying to think, but I don’t believe I’ve ever listened to a book at 1.75 speed. LOL That’s a stat someone should collect on a review site. πŸ˜›

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      I started at 1.00, almost immediately changed to 1.25, some time near the middle decided, I want to get this over with and switched to 1.5, but at some point I turned it up to 1.75, not a recommended speed for when you want to enjoy a book πŸ˜‰ But here, it was either that or a DNF, and I decided to finish so that I can write this review πŸ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Well, the universe with pirates, cultists and demigods was intriguing, but I am sorry that this book didn’t live up to your expectations! And what you wrote about the character is just so not good!
    I am glad that you find something else to satisfy your thirst for space opera!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      I bought the premise, and… you’ve read how it ended πŸ˜‰ Thanks, Asher is slowly growing on me (but I still believe Banks to be vastly superior).

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Oh that sucks this didn’t work out for you. But what you’ve said there about his Craft books got me interested. I’ll add the first one to my TBR. So far, I’ve avoided Gladstone’s books because scifi isn’t my jam, but I’m curious about any story that mixes religion and magic.

    Liked by 1 person

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