Liz Bourke Reviews Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Empress of Forever, Max Gladstone (Tor 978-0-7653-9581-8, $18.99, 480pp, tp) June 2019. Cover by Tommy Arnold.

Max Gladstone is unfairly talented. Reviewing his Empress of Forever is a bloody intimidating undertaking, because it’s just that damn good. It’s not enough that his Craft Sequence series is a complex, twisty, delightfully playful and deeply thought provoking set of works that take on themes of power, the ten­sion between progress and conservatism, social dynamics, colonialism, and social responsibility. among other things. It was nominated for one of the first Hugo Awards for Best Series, an honour that it fairly deserved. Nooooo. He has to turn his pen to science fiction, and with his first novel-length foray, turn out something brain-meltingly excellent.

Empress of Forever may, in fact, be an even better novel than any of his fantasies. It’s certainly just as complex and thought provoking, and it’s even faster, tighter, and more intense.

Vivian Liao is a wildly successful inventor, innovator, and entrepreneur. A tech genius and a savvy businesswoman, she’s ambitious, driven, and convinced that her way is the best way. Most of the time, she’s even right, but she has enemies – many enemies, and right now she might not live long enough to beat them. (Even a multibillionaire can be disappeared to a black site eventually. Even a multibillionaire’s only one woman, in the end.) So, on the eve of her greatest success – trying to put her most ambitious plan yet into motion, a technological ploy that would allow her to control all the world’s networked systems so that she could make things better and, not incidentally, survive – she’s on the run from those enemies.

In the cold darkness of a Boston server farm, she encounters something terrifying and every­thing goes dark.

When she wakes up, it’s the far, far future and she’s a prisoner. Rescued – sort of – by a warrior monk from a fanatical sect known as the Mirror­faith, and caught between the Mirrorfaith and the Pride (an army of sentient machines), Viv frees an ancient pirate queen, the so-called Tyrant Zanj, more-or-less through a combination of accident and desperation from centuries of torment at the hands of the Empress of Forever.

The future is ruled by an ancient, almost all-powerful Empress who can control reality with her will, and who is at war – a war that means she destroys whole planets when they grow too advanced, for their advance into technology at­tracts the enemy – with an enemy even she cannot vanquish utterly. Rebellion is literally unthinkable for most. The people of this future think of the high technology (Viv reasons it out as high technology) in terms of miracles and souls.

According to the people she encounters, Viv has no soul. She isn’t connected to the all-pervading communication medium of the future the way others are. And she’s determined to get home. But getting home will mean facing down the Empress Herself – and uncovering the mystery of why that Empress plucked her into the future.

Viv’s always believed she’s special, but seri­ously? Of all the people in the world, why her? She’s going to find out. She and the Empress are connected on a level that makes Viv question herself and her choices. Deeply.

When it comes to mad and madly cool com­plicated worldbuilding, Gladstone doesn’t hold back. Empress of Forever is packed full of cool and amazing shit, which builds on itself so that the reader discovers (and puts together) more of the world along with Viv and her companions. It’s an absolutely fascinating world.

Gladstone’s also pretty damn good at writing fascinating characters. Viv is Empress of For­ever‘s main protagonist, and the character around whom the narrative turns, but the other characters are just as fully realised and fully developed, and all have very different relationships with her. I especially like her initially antagonistic relationship with Zanj, which over time grows into something very like comradeship and mutual respect. But her romantic relationship with Xiara, a pilot from a race of pilots left trapped on their world when the Empress destroyed their civilisation, is one that really shows how Viv grows over the course of the novel. Xiara wants her, but also calls her on her crap, and Viv grows enough to allow herself to grow into a relationship.

Empress of Forever is doing a lot of things at once. One of the things it’s doing is exploring – interrogating – questions of identity and free will. What makes us what – and who – we are? What makes us, or allows us, to grow beyond our worst impulses? What does it mean, to work for the liberation of all sentient beings?

Empress of Forever is tense and vast, complex and twisty, a space opera epic that’s a lot faster on the draw than Star Wars or Star Trek ever dreamed of being. But at its core, it’s an epic about the value of empathy and the importance of compassion.

It’s amazingly good. That too. Gladstone con­tinues to outdo himself with each new book. With Empress of Forever, I can’t even imagine what he’ll do for an encore.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the April 2019 issue of Locus.

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