Books: The Risen Empire

…by Scott Westerfeld.  The Risen Empire is a book identified with ‘the new space opera’, which is exactly why I bought it.  That and a friend’s recommendation for Westerfeld’s YA writing on his Uglies series (which I’ve not yet read).  People are writing theses and dissertations on just what the ‘new’ Space Opera is and means, but since I liked the old version, and since I’ve recently read and enjoyed some other books that seem to fall under that label, I wanted to give this one a shot.

The Risen Empire begins at a breakneck pace, with no less than the Emperor’s younger sister held hostage by the borg-like Rix in a far-flung corner of the empire, Legis XV.  In a few short chapters, we meet several crew members of the starship Lynx, commanded by Captain Zai, and learn of the serious political ramifications of this incident.  The action come fast, with just enough explanation of the technology and culture to clue you in, peopled by the kinds of familiar archetypal sci-fi characters that don’t require elaborate biographical digressions.  These are short chapters from the p.o.v. from a host of different characters, and they prove effective not only at advancing the plot but also at gradually painting in character details while hitting some serious world-building.  What you end up with is a masterful first 100 or so pages.

As the book unfolds, the main characters – Captain Zai, First Officer Hobbes, Senator Nara Oxham, and the Legis XV Compound Mind – emerge.  Zai and Nara, the military man and the empath minority-coalition politco, present an interesting star-crossed romance.  Zai, we learn, is a war hero, who attempted to sacrifice himself for the benefit of his crew and found himself subject to tortures that make waterboarding look like the slap-and-tickle.  Nara grew up on a sparsely populated agrarian world, which partially masked her telepathic abilities until her first trip to the big city, at which point she lost her sanity (in the classic X-Men theme, wherein she cannot shut out others’ thoughts); however, she recovered and managed to get elected to the Imperial Senate, where her empathy and intellect make her a political dynamo.  Hobbes is interesting as the outsider within the Imperial Navy.  She comes from a ‘Utopian World’ rather than some far-flung colony or traditional military family and provides context and insight on the highly traditional military structure the author has constructed.  The Compound Mind, and later, its Rix-Surrogate Commando, don’t get many chapters, but they’re all quite good and give Westerfeld his podium for exploring and Artificial Intelligence-based culture.

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