12 January 2013

Review: Empire

The Book: Empire by Michael R. Hicks

Price: Free

Review Category: An enthusiastic tweeter and successful indie author I was keen to check it out.

The Blurb: EMPIRE is the coming-of-age story of Reza Gard, a young boy of the Human Confederation who is swept up in the century-long war with the alien Kreelan Empire. Nightmarish female warriors with blue skin, fangs, and razor sharp talons, the Kreelans have technology that is millennia beyond that of the Confederation, yet they seek out close combat with sword and claw, fighting and dying to honor their god-like Empress.

Captured and enslaved, Reza must live like his enemies in a grand experiment to see if humans have souls, and if one may be the key to unlocking an ages old curse upon the Kreelan race. Enduring the brutal conditions of Kreelan life, Reza and a young warrior named Esah-Zhurah find themselves bound together by fate and a prophecy foretold millennia before they were born.

Preview Available: Well, it's kind of free so...

Would I buy this (again)?: Given the price of titles in the series I probably will buy the others at some point so, yes.

The Product: A really well put together e-book and an example to others, well laid out for the reader with marketing folded into the closing pages. Really well done.

The Nitty Gritty: When I finished Empire I found myself having to ask my wife: If someone gave you a book that claimed to be a space opera what would you expect to happen in the story? She replied that she would have expected space ships, laser battles and aliens. By which count Empire scores 1 out of 3, it does contain aliens. In most other respects, however, this is not a space opera, rather it is a swords and sandals fantasy, in the vein of Conan the Barbarian, with space opera-y trappings.

What's even weirder is that the space opera sections are, by far, the weakest parts of the book. So I'm going to pitch it to you straight, this is a really really good blood and thunder melodramatic gladiatorial fantasy with action, adventure, lizard women and a fascinating, bizarre romance at its core. The slices of space opera bread in which this is the meaty, spicy, satisfying filling are dry, cardboardy and a little mouldy, don't let that put you off.

The story of Reza Gard, enslaved by the Kreelan Empire as part of a grand spiritual experiment is earnest, surprising and exciting by turns. After a couple of chapters of the fifteen year old Reza being obnoxiously wonderful in an orphan's colony the sudden switch to an environment where he is weak, frightened and not loved or respected by anyone is a welcome change. When Mr Hicks begins to dish out punishment to the precocious little snot I began to relax. Later on, when he begins to develop fuzzy feelings towards one of the blue-skinned, taloned, sadistic lizard women who surround him it definitely gave me pause for thought.

That's the hard nugget of mental engagement squirrelled away in amongst the torrid tale of survival, combat and forbidden love on an alien world as deadly as it is beautiful. This is heady stuff indeed, the two lovers in the centre of the tale are given depth by the situation in which they find themselves. Reza is more than just a two dimensional Buck McHeropants because he was a normal all-American human kid who got a taste for bondage and domination at the hands of blue lizards. His lizard companion Esah-Zurah because Hicks commits fully to the idea that this woman is like Red Sonja only blue and not as cuddly or loveable.

So often in fantasy tales female warriors are just vehicles for the expression of dodgy submissive fantasy and misogyny on the part of the author. Empire has the cheek to subvert that notion by extrapolating it to its ultimate end. Hicks is careful to communicate that the Kreelan warrior women are anything but desirable to humans. For a start any human that meets a Kreelan is way too busy watching their intestines uncoil to wonder about alien nookie. To take this unforgiving template and spin an interspecies romance is chutzpah beyond that which I possess. To take all the reasons why such a twist is insane, laugh in their face and then add fairly sophisticated alien political and spiritual complications into the already unlikely mix propels the narrative into a whole new sphere of crazy.

Maybe I am just a bit of a fuddy duddy when it comes to this sort of stuff but the most gripping aspect of this story was the feeling of buying into everything even as you wondered whether you were being an idiot for doing so. The story of Reza Gard is what keeps me interested here, and the adventures in the Kreelan Empire are an amazing ride. I must admit to misgivings about reading other books in the series as I am uncertain that I will enjoy them as much, but I will be giving them a chance when I have some room in my reading schedule (so some time in 2017 then?) simply out of respect for this gloriously lunatic alien fantasy love story.

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