Empress of Forever: Thrilling space opera, but it is science fiction?

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsEmpress of Forever by Max Gladstone science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsEmpress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever (2019) is definitely space opera. In a far distant future, tech genius, entrepreneur and loner Vivian Liao travels from planet to planet and system to system trying to find an advantage in a losing war against an all-powerful space empress. Viv, who is plucked by that same empress out of her our-present-day life (and planned rebellion), draws to herself the usual strange pack of uneasy allies in this battle. The book is complicated, fascinating, fast-paced, and star-and-planet hopping. I’m not sure it’s science fiction.

Viv Liao is a titan of tech, a brilliant, quirky creator who has made billions of dollars and finally, become a threat to the wrong people. On the night of her birthday party she flees, enacting her own personal plan for a technological coup. Instead, a powerful being nearly kills her and when she awakes, she is in a far future, a post-human universe where Earth is vaguely remembered if at all, and everyone is implanted, augmented, and connected to the vast data-stream called the Cloud that is functionally the universe. Because Viv lacks such a connection, the residents see her as soulless — a condition which, strangely, gives her a slight advantage over the Empress.

After a surprisingly short period of disorientation and dislocation, Viv connects with the monk Hong, whose order studies the Empress; frees the dreaded pirate queen Zanj (possibly my favorite character) from a prison the Empress created; recruits a Viking-like starship pilot wannabe; and meets a baby god. She learns that in addition to the Empress, who swoops down and destroys civilizations just before they reach a certain level of sophistication, she must battle the creatures who devour the Cloud, drawn by increasing interaction with it. The Empress’s actions may be designed to save the universe from these very creatures, at a terrible cost.

In addition to her team, Viv meets the Suicide Queens, who are old allies of Zanj, and the Empress herself. In the best tradition of a quest, Viv must get to know herself better if she is to best the Empress and save this universe, and if she has any hope of all of saving her Earth and her friends there.

I loved the imagery and the imagination in Empress of Forever. The character alliances are shaky, often broken and sometimes mended, in believable ways. When I say that I doubt it’s science fiction, it’s because the high degree of “science” puts this book into Arthur C. Clarke land for me; it’s indistinguishable from magic. Viv’s post-human partners can change shape, fly through space without an atmosphere suit, mind-meld with a sentient ship or a whole fleet. They can move at the speed of information, which is faster than light. They are more like comic-book superheroes than characters in a scientifically advanced world. The book works completely, but I never shook that fantasy feeling. (Please note that for me, if I had to characterize that, it would be a feature, not a bug.)

Strangely, the novella Gladstone wrote with Amal El-Mohtar, This is How You Lose the Time War, felt more purely science-fictional to me, while the Empress could easily (if she chose) transplant herself into Gladstone’s CRAFT series world.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy every word of Empress of Forever because I did. I loved the complicated relationships and the twisted loyalties. I thought Vivian was a good representative of a certain kind of person and many of the challenges she faces are logical extension of choices she made in her terrestrial life. And I loved the imagination at work here, the various worlds and constructs.

Empress of Forever is marketed as SF. It’s got an SF cover and it takes place mostly in space. Whatever subgenre you put it in, it delivers good, thought-provoking entertainment.

~Marion DeedsEmpress of Forever by Max Gladstone science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews


Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsEmpress of Forever is one of those books that I admire more than I love. I admire its inventiveness, the world(s) Gladstone creates, the characters he populates them with and, as Marion said, “the complicated relationships and the twisted loyalties.” I admire Viv for being so brave and determined. I was fascinated by the empress.

However, I didn’t actually like any of the characters. I thought Viv was too badass to be believed, and she was abrasive. Her ruthlessness and recklessness made me nervous. She didn’t seem real to me, I didn’t feel anything for her, and I didn’t enjoy being in her head.

Because I didn’t like Viv, I didn’t care what happened to her and, therefore, the plot, for me, was like watching an intense fast-action superhero movie without knowing who the characters are or what the stakes are. It just didn’t matter to me.

The audiobook version of Empress of Forever was published by Dreamscape Media and narrated by Natalie Naudus who is really terrific. I liked her a lot better than I liked Viv.

~Kat Hooper

Published in June 2019. A wildly successful innovator to rival Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Vivian Liao is prone to radical thinking, quick decision-making, and reckless action. On the eve of her greatest achievement, she seeks to outrun people who are trying to steal her success. In the chilly darkness of a Boston server farm, she sets her ultimate plan into motion. A terrifying instant later, she is catapulted through space and time to a far future where she confronts a destiny stranger and more deadly than she could ever imagine. The end of time is ruled by an ancient, powerful Empress who blesses or blasts entire planets with a single thought. Rebellion is literally impossible to consider – until Vivian Liao arrives. Trapped between the Pride – a ravening horde of sentient machines – and a fanatical sect of warrior monks who call themselves the Mirrorfaith, Viv must rally a strange group of allies to confront the Empress and find a way back to the world and life she left behind.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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5 comments

  1. I had similar trouble as Kat did with the main but since I wasn’t reading it for review I had to DNF it.

    • Glad to know I’m not the only one. I felt bad for not liking it more.

    • April, was it the characters? That was Kat’s issue. They worked for me, mostly.

    • Paul Connelly /

      It feels like Max has gotten to the place where he loves his characters too much. At least in his last few books. One consequence is almost none of them is truly at risk, which lessens the suspense of the story (there was the one character that died nobly at the end of Empress, but that was it). Another consequence is that they become less living and breathing people and more emblems of something that the author really likes or admires or thinks is cool. I didn’t get that feeling with the first four Craft Sequence books, but it was just starting to creep in with Four Roads Cross. And more evident in everything since that.

      Another author that hit a patch like that is Ian McDonald. His characters were so cool. But you couldn’t care about any of them.

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