(Also known as The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds)
SFBC, 2003, 530 pages, ??.?? hc, ISBN 0-7394-3801-8
By now, Scott Westerfeld is best known as a massively successful author of Young Adult science-fiction. His “Peeps” trilogy has earned him a large teen following, and most of his books since then have been aimed (by choice, with compelling arguments) to the younger set. Given this, it’s easy to forget some of Westerfeld’s earlier works, especially those that were aimed at the adult market. The last of those was the space-opera diptych The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, known together as Succession.
Part of why Succession continues to escape notice can be traced back to the Westerfeld’s publisher. When Succession was first published, Tor felt market pressures to split the complete story into two volumes, severely harming the novel’s shot at awards and even readers’ attention. It’s no secret that a split novel costs more to buy, but it’s also true that a split novel creates frustration: Here, The Risen Empire ends on a cliffhanger, while The Killing of Worlds makes little sense if you haven’t read the first volume. (Amazingly, I see that Tor doesn’t seem to consider this a problem, since it’s currently re-publishing Succession in separate volumes.) This makes the hard-to-find SFBC unified version the only good way to read the story –albeit not the perfect way, as their edition is marred by a sans-serif font choice and the SFBC’s usually unreliable binding.
Kvetching about the publishing industry aside, the novel itself is worth some attention. Fully embracing space-opera, Succession delivers a vacillating empire, courageous characters, strong battle sequences (including a bravura space battle that takes place over a quarter of the story), fully developed science-fiction aesthetics and personal stories with galactic implications. Much of the setting doesn’t make sense except in the rigidly constrained frame of space-operas, but never mind the plausibility aspect: this is a novel that plays around with SF tropes to deliver a reading experience that readers versed in SF protocols will enjoy to the fullest.
Much of the novel rests on two characters: Opposition politician Nara Oxham and military hero Laurent Zai. Ironically enough, neither of them actually meet during the story aside from a few flashbacks: Zai is the point man of the Empire’s forces on a small backwater planet during an enemy attack, while Oxham has a privileged outlook on the political fallout of that attack. Several characters surround them and tell their part of the story, from various men and women under Zai’s command to an enemy agent dropped behind the Empire’s lines.
It’s a measure of Westerfeld’s contemporary genre-awareness that Empire and its Rix opponents are evenly matched in our affections: While the ultra-optimized Rix is portrayed as being contrary to everything our protagonists’ Empire stands for, the Empire itself doesn’t seem particularly appealing from the get-go. This ends up placing our affections with the characters rather than their social structure, a distinction that a number of space-opera writers can’t be bothered to study. It’s also a good choice given how much emphasis is placed on the characters themselves. The last line of the story makes it clear that this is, aside its military SF language, a romance.
But Succession does stand on its own as a hard-tech Science Fiction story: Westerfeld’s use of contemporary infotech jargon can be as good as his contemporary Charles Stross (high praise indeed) and the showpiece of the story ends up being a meticulously conceived, impeccably presented space battle between two ships that owes practically nothing to naval battles of the past. It doesn’t make complete sense (there’s a “run silent” scene that evokes bad memories of “stealth in space”), but it’s a lot of fun to read, and the detail in which blows are described will warm the heart of the techno-geeks readers.
For everyone else (and overlapping sets of readers), Succession is a good story presented in the overblown style of grandiose space-opera. Numerous gadgets, clean prose (albeit with a sense of humor) and a conclusion that doesn’t quite wrap up all the threads end up making a clear case for Westerfeld’s return to this universe. If you’ve missed Succession so far, it’s worth a look: It holds up admirably well half a decade later, and it may even drive you to read some of Westerfeld’s novels for the younger generation.