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Book Review: The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld

* Genre: Space Opera, Hard SF
* Paperback: 352 pages
* Publisher: Tor Books
* Publication Date: Reprint edition (July 22, 2008)
* ISBN-10: 0765319985
* ISBN-13: 978-0765319982
* Author Website

Breaking the traditional format of book, chapter, and section in a novel can be a bold move. Many readers like knowing that the novels they read will have a standardized format that allows them to focus on the story, and less on the form. But sometimes a novel just calls for something different. Scott Westerfeld’s Risen Empire is one such novel.

The story is constructed around various perspectives. Although broken into different “books” the similarity to standard format ends. Westerfeld ahs written the novel so that it jumps from perspective to perspective, each section titled the role the character whose point of view it is plays in the novel. So throughout the novel, you get multiple sections titled “Commanding Officer” or “Executive Officer” or “Senator”. And it works. Westerfeld’s perspective hopping keeps the story moving. As the plot is revealed the dual perspectives give the narrative dimensionality it otherwise would not have had.

Risen Empire is the first in a series of books that have been compared to Frank Herbert’s Dune and Issac Asimov’s Foundation. Like them, this novel is set in a far distant future of man. Because of the diffculties of travel of such great distances, many star empires have developed. One such is the Risen Empire ruled over by the immortal dead. In this empire are two lovers, Laurent Zai, a commander in the fleet of the Empire who is loyal almost to a fault, and Nara Oxham, a senator who believes that the stodgy dead should have no power over the living. These two become lovers, but problems arise when the heiress to the Empire is held hostage. Zai must rescue her, and failure means his death.

Along with shifting perspectives, the book alos shifts back and forth in time, not always in a clearly defined fashion. Although a time frame might be given to a specific section of the story, the reader will into always be clear when the writer segues back into the present day, at least not until events make it obvious. I found this to be an annoying thing, although I must congratulate Westerfeld on making he transitions so seamless. I neve really new when I had jumped from the past to the present day.

This novel is also very heavy on science. Westerfeld would often move into very specific descriptions or explanations of the science behind faster than light travel, the machine that makes immortality through death possible, and especially the four types of gravity he uses to make staller empires a reality. My own eyes glossed over a few times, since Westerfeld assumes a certain level of knowledge about physics I did not have. I didn’t like it.

That being said, the novel is still an excellent one. Westerfeld manages to have a story revolve around two people and two key events. The multiple perspectives was the way that Westerfeld ensured the events never get dull or even repetitious. The action is full of hand to hand combat, mixing laser guns and knives to make for rip-roaring action. The space battles involve massive ships, one ship even finding itself in a David and Goliath situation. The battles are very exciting in The Risen Empire.

The world-building is fantastic. In this sense, the novel is comparable to Herbert or Asimov. I think the writing in this story has less of the lofty nature of those two writers (though many of the themes are the same). Risen Empire instead has a more casual style, as if the character whose point of view you are reading is talking to you.
Risen Empire is an excellent read. Though the ending is open-ended and will require the reader to read the next book to find out what happens next – this book ends on a massive cliffhanger – it is still enjoyable for its unusual style and content. Good space opera is rare, and Westerfeld’s Risen Empire is one of those few.

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