Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a frustrating book. I almost gave up on it several times, with its dragging pace. Then I would run across an interesting and unexpected plot twist, or a few pages of prose like this:
The kettle spoke, and as Yannis poured, she flickered. Her scales glistened gold, her head proud, unbowed, feather-crested, her teeth long and fierce, her skin threaded with fire: immutable, unbendingly vicious, a violence that once stalked prey through some prehistoric alien swamp, still, still, each heartbeat closer to a pounce. The preconscious mammal buried somewhere in Viv's body saw that shape and reacted with hot-stove speed; before she realized what was happening, she'd half risen to a crouch and dropped her teacup.
When Gladstone's prose sings, it really sings. Unfortunately, he spends most of the book walking a perilous tightrope between sublime and purple, and he falls off rather more than I'd like. This book, and its characters and world, are not subtle. You've noticed I tagged it "science fantasy" instead of science fiction? There's a reason for that; I've rarely seen a book that lived up to Arthur C. Clarke's old maxim of "advanced technology indistinguishable from magic" more than this one. Whatever laws of physics might exist in this universe are definitely not our own, and the characters break most of them anyway. Which other authors have also done: Yoon Ha Lee, for example, with his excellent Machineries of Empire series. But Lee's books have rules, and make sense, in a way this book does not.
The characters also have problems, because with the exception of the protagonist Vivian Liao (and even she gets in on the action at the end) most of them are either godlike or full-blown gods, whether or not they're called that. This gets boring after a while, as there don't seem to be any limits. It's like having a universe full of Superpeople. I liked Zanj, for instance, but good heavens, seeing her whip through pretty much everything thrown at her, swelling up to gargantuan size, and wielding her spaceship like a damn sword got on my nerves. The only one Zanj can't bring down is the Empress, and the final twist....no, I don't want to get into it. It was completely unsatisfying, at least to me.
I suspect this will be a bit of a marmite book. Those who like it really like it, while those who don't....will probably do what I'm going to do and donate it to the library. It was okay in spots, but for me, that's not good enough to keep it around.
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