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REVIEW: The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld

REVIEW SUMMARY: Inventive, pulse-pounding space opera infused with action, intrigue and an intense sense of wonder.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Empire sends war hero Laurent Zai to rescue the Child Empress, taken hostage by the nefarious and powerful Rix, a group of machine-augmented humans bent on seeing an AI hive-mind as ruler of the Eighty Worlds.

PROS: Engrossing; action-packed; interesting story; strong characters; political intrigue.
CONS: Political intrigue leaned too much towards politics at times.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent example of space opera done to perfection. Highly recommended.

I recently made a bold, rash statement stating that Alastair Reynolds was my favorite writer. The statement was bold because it was the first time I committed to having a favorite writer (and, to be sure, Reynolds more than qualifies as anyone’s favorite writer). The statement was rash because I may have spoken too soon. Along comes another of the new-breed of space opera that flies just as high. Scott Westerfeld’s first entry in his SUCCESSION series is 2003’s The Risen Empire, an eclectic blend of cool science, superb world-building and engrossing story.

In a nutshell: The Empire of the eighty inhabited worlds of man is controlled by a dead man. The Risen, led by the Emperor, are an elite group of the formerly dead, reanimated through advanced technology. The enemies of the Risen Empire are the Rix, a powerful race of augmented humans who worship a compound artificial intelligence and seek to perpetuate the AI’s existence on planetary scales. At the story’s opening, the Rix have the Child Empress (the Emperor’s sister) held hostage and a rescue team is dispatched to rescue her. The rescue effort is led by Commander Laurent Zai, a war hero whose weapons include remote nanotech machines. Failure in the mission is a failure of Blood – punishable by death in the form of ritualistic suicide. Zai has a secret, romantic relationship with Imperial Senator Nara Oxham whose own situation is complicated by her stout opposition to the idea of immortality. End of nutshell.

In trying to pinpoint the main appeal of this story, I realized that there were many facets to its charm. The story has it all: intrigue, drama, action, plot twists, tension, strong characters, and enjoyable writing style. The plot, while seemingly simple, is expertly woven and unraveled. It just draws you in as focus shifts from one strong character to the next. It’s impossible to not admire the author’s execution as you’re turning the pages wanting to see what happens next.

While there was lots of cool technology that added to the book’s sense of wonder, I particularly enjoyed the applications of the technology. Nano-technology is a given and its uses range from remote-controlled ships to form-fitting uniforms. Other cool ideas are put to good use as well: a sentient house (a character unto itself!), optical overlays, biological augmentation, and, oh yeah, the ability to raise the recently dead.

Not to be confused, the Risen are not zombies. Instead, they are just another faction of humans (the “grays”) who happen to have become immortal after a brief period of death. There are plenty of other factions for the grays to deal with. There are Loyalists (Beating the Specter of Death for centuries!), Expansionists (Let’s overpower the Risen through more breeding!), Secularists (Screw the dead! Let nature take its course!) and Utopians (Immortality for all, but not for the dead!). Since politics is usually an entertainment killer for me, I was pleased to see it put to good use. Most of the time, the politics was presented in the form of political intrigue.

The action scenes are superb, evoking feelings of tension and excitement at the same time. I particularly enjoyed the hostage rescue scene where my expectation of the predictable was shattered like broken glass. The mutiny scene was also first-rate. The breaks between the action were equally engrossing as they added to the world building and the intrigue. The proliferation of the AI named Alexander, with the help of the Rix named h_rd (Not a typo. What, you don’t have an underscore in your name?), was very well done.

This is space opera the way it was meant to be: fast, fun and engrossing from its excellent start to its nail-biting cliffhanger ending.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

7 Comments on REVIEW: The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld

  1. I’ve got them on the shelf, and they are among the next in line, along with the Reynolds volume, one by Hamilton, one by MacLeod.

    They sounded interesting. I was even more impressed with the fact that the author restrained himself and limited himself to a “duology” instead of padding it out to be Yet Another Endless Series.

  2. So I have a comment. Your ‘con’ is: “Political intrigue leaned too much towards politics at times”. Well, duh! That’s why its called political intrigue, ’cause its about politics. Sheesh.


  3. Yeah, yeah. By “politics” I mean “here’s the economic/sociological basis for our society, blah, blah, blah”. By “intrigue” I mean backstabbing, changing allegiances, covert operations, etc. I like the intrigue, but not the politics.

  4. I finished reading Risen Empire a few months ago and have no desire to read the next book. I too had a problem with the politics. Nara Oxham annoyed the hell out of me. It was clear that Nara wants political change and for people to reject undeath, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the undead aristocracy. Having eternal life to roam the galaxies appeals to me (as a SF fan) and I was disappointed when the author’s own bias shows so blatantly through the character of Nara.

  5. This one of the best books i’ve ever read. I strongly recomend it!

  6. The next book in the series, The Killing of Worlds, is even better. You’ll be hooked on simply every page. The drama moves from two ships in one part of the galaxy, and then to the entire Empire of Eighty Worlds.

    The technology just gets better and better. Damn brilliant battle tactics, if you ask me: the fate of incredibly huge ships are at the mercy of tens of thousands of tiny machines! Attacks made by thousands of bullets, all travelling at near-light speed!

    Also, something truly amazing happens right after the characters say:

    – This better be damn important.

    – It is. We reviewed the data logs from the Rix’s entry into the system. We found an occulation.

    – A what?!

    – We may have missed something…

  7. I personally loved the Risen Empire and Killing of Worlds, and normally, politics is really boring for me but Westerfeld managed to weave it into the story line so subtly that, although it is a major element, it seems more like a backdrop than an actual part of the story.

    One thing I found really fascinating was that AI was applied to a whole melange of different things, from totally obvious (robots ect) to the most unique and creative aplications of AI I’ve ever read (like the intelligent rockets in Killing of Worlds which were almost a character by its own right and the AI goop that h_rd used).

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