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 😉 ) and I was in a mood for a nice space opera.
Author: Max Gladstone
Title: Empress of Forever
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 😉 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 everything—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.
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 😉