On the surface, the sprawling, bizarro space opera Empress of Forever marks a departure for Max Gladstone, author of the Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence, that uncategorizable city-based (but decidedly not urban fantasy) series in which the magic system is based on the binding, god-drawn power of contract law and lawyers stand in for sorcerers.
But scratch beyond the label and swap out a few genre tropes, and it’s clear that Empress provides plenty of room for the author to expand upon his greatest strength: letting smart characters be smart in a world that requires them to be so. Or, more specifically, letting smart women be smart in a universe that will kill them if they aren’t
This reality hit me within the first few pages, as Vivian Liao, billionaire tech titan, finds herself transported to a galaxy far from her own, an unwitting actor in an intergalactic drama. Stopped in the middle of her attempt to go off the grid and foil her enemies’ earthbound plots, she’s sucked through time and space by a mysterious glowing woman who touch leaves her with burned and blackened scars. When Vivian wakes, she finds herself a galaxy she doesn’t recognize and has, rather unfortunately, emerged in what seems to be a firefight between two forces entirely, pardon the pun, alien to her.
Does Viv panic? Not any more than is reasonable. Does she cower? Only when it’s strategic to do so. The part of her brain that built an earthly empire goes into hyperdrive analyzing the situation, assessing the odds, deriving plans A, B, and C. Her first reaction upon regaining consciousness, ensconced in a viscous green membrane, is to launch into a standard decision-making process: orient, observe, decide, and act.
It’s a beautiful display of competence amid an outrageous turn of events.
Perhaps Viv’s intelligence hit me so hard because of the timing: Empress arrives on shelves mere weeks after the ending of a certain high-fantasy television show that saw all of its cleverest characters devolve into mush-minded plot conveniences by the finale.
Or perhaps it’s so notable because it’s so entirely routine in Gladstone’s work. The Craft Sequence novels paint in intricate detail a world of necromancers and lawyers, fallen gods and boardrooms. Everyone’s smart, including, and maybe most especially, the women. Instead of being told repeatedly that characters are intelligent, Gladstone just shows us. Ruin of Angels, the latest entry in the series, has a near entirely female cast, including Kai, its inimitable transgender protagonist; their collective hunt for Kai’s fugitive sister is a showcase of various types of brilliance and talent, while still leaving room for necessary emotional struggle.
The same is true of Viv in Empress of Forever as she attempts to thwart the will of the green-skinned Empress who abducted her. It’s no easy feat, as the woman controls, well, everything through the Cloud, a souped-up version of our own ethereal datasphere.
Even in a foreign world, Viv doesn’t make stupid choices. Her mistakes and missteps—of which there are plenty—aren’t the result of her acting out-of-character. They’re the result of miscalculations or missing information. And none of that calculating diminishes Viv’s ability to feel or to respond to the feelings of others. (Though the brick wall she’s built to house her own emotions does.)
Along with her on the journey through space and time—on her journey, she hopes, to defeat the Empress and get home—is a ragtag collection of galactic hitchhikers. There is Hong, the loyal priest whose sect is determined to learn all there is about the Empress, and Xiara, a chief’s daughter from a planet long deprived of its destiny by the Empress’ actions. Gray, meanwhile, is a goo-bot demigod, built to serve the Empress but fallen from her graces, who had good intentions but a voracious appetite to consume matter and knowledge. And then there is Zanj, the one true challenger to the Empress’ power, an imprisoned warlord whose centuries in tortured isolation have stoked her fury to incalculable levels.
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Together, they form a delightful, mismatched heist crew. The comparisons this novel has drawn to Guardians of the Galaxy are understandable and well-earned—you won’t soon read a book more overloaded with outlandishly imaginative and downright fun set-pieces, including a battle involving space vessels made of stained glass— but in Gladstone’s hands, the novel’s cast makes for a brainier, unapologetically feminist rendering that feels more in line with the present moment. The action still moves at a lightyear pace, but it rarely moves faster than Viv and company, who are endlessly orienting, observing, deciding, and acting.
It’s a chess game played out across the stars, with a fearsome matched set of queens and a collection of pawns who are unforgettable. It’s also proof Gladstone can write in any genre he so chooses. Luckily, we don’t have to wait long for his next foray into sci-fi: This Is How You Lose the Time War, a jagged time travel romance co-authored with Amal El-Mohtar, arrives in July. That should give your brain just long enough to reorient itself to all the rewiring Empress of Forever is about to inflict upon it.
Empress of Forever is available June 18.