Desperate to save his beloved younger sister from a fatal disease, the Emperor discovered a form of immortality. Sixteen hundred years later, the Emperor reigns over the Eighty Worlds, offering his military and the social elite the promise of Rising after death to life forever. It’s known that the Risen are not precisely the same as the living – they’re grey, dispassionate, and generally uninterested in human affairs, but they endure. Central to the culture of the Eighty Worlds is the Reason, the Child Empress, forever eight, forever held dear.
Territory in the universe is precious, and the Eighty Worlds are at war. Their greatest enemy, the Rix, is a true threat. The Eighty Worlds has held its own until the day the Rix take the Child Empress hostage. And though Captain Laurent Zai effects a rescue, he is too late – not only to save the Reason, but also too late to protect a secret that has the power to shatter the Eighty Worlds and bring down the Emperor. As Laurent tries to balance his honour with his desire to live, he discovers treachery at a level he never believed possible. His rejection of the suicide expected of one who fails is enhanced by his relationship with far-distant Pink senator Nara Oxham, who believes the dead should stay dead, that Risen stifle humanity’s progress. Nara’s newly appointed to the Emperor’s War Council, and is facing a conflict of her own. And in the polar snow a Rix soldier breaths life into a woman used by as it needed by her society then abandoned her in her time of need.
There are a number of really interesting elements here – intelligent houses, sentient machines, notions of honour and service, nanotech, the effect of living leaders extending their lives by using chemical hibernation for months on end, the central idea of the Risen, how immortality affects society, and the societal effect of a Great Lie. I find many novels around life on military space craft fascinating, and I liked the sadly under explored position of Nara as a minority party member, advocating a natural life span in the face of a culture based on a millennia and a half of Risen ideology.
But the battle scenes are confusing and tediously lengthy, the societal problem of immortality is more interestingly and convincingly explored by Elizabeth Moon (see her Serrano series), and I just didn’t care.
This volume combines two novels, The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, and maybe that was part of the problem. It felt like I was reading it forever – days stretched on and on, as it became The Book That Had No End and I had to read other books in between to get a break. There was the occasional light touch – I particularly liked the note on imperial measurements, as determined by the Emperor, which (after an explanation of lengths of time and distance and gravity) concludes, “the Emperor has decreed that the speed of light shall remain as nature has provided.”
But lightness was the exception – for the most part I found this ponderous, the heaviest of hard SF. I found this particularly disappointing, as I’m a fan of Westerfeld’s fantasy, from Peeps and Last Days to So Yesterday and the long-awaited (for me - for ages I could only find the first part but now I use The Library) the Midnighters trilogy. Critically well received, The Risen Empire is a fallen soufflé for me. - Alex