Max Gladstone’s latest owes plenty to traditional story beats and forms, but the trappings make for a wild adventure that’s worth the time.
You know, even without reading Empress of Forever, the rough idea and form the story is going to take. It’s not quite a full-blown heroic journey, but the adventures of Vivian Liao feel familiar all the same.
To make clear: this is not a bad thing. There’s a reason we put this latest novel from Max Gladstone on our list of best SFF titles to read this June. It doesn’t quite fall into a full-on beach read title in the way that we usually use the term, but it’s made for being able to sit back and contemplate afterwards, and there aren’t many better ways to do that than by staring out into the vastness of whatever body of water you’re sitting on the shores of.
But enough about the book’s impact. What about the book gives it this sort of weight? Part of it is its length of 480 pages; part of it is the kind of writing Gladstone is throwing at us, which can shift from funny to thick in the span of a few lines.
The concepts he’s working with are simple at their base — myth and reality, shapeshifters, a literal pirate queen, the self — but recombined here to create all kinds of permutations that can, at times, not be particularly easy to follow, especially when the action scenes are viewed through Vivian’s basic human eyes.
Yet though you’ll likely recognize certain beats and tropes, the journey is still magical enough. In its description, it notes that there’s a lot of Star Wars in this book, and that’s absolutely true. Perhaps it’s a little more grown-up in its approach to philosophical matters, but saying the Cloud is the Force is not wholly inaccurate.
There are moments of pure wonder, here and there, when Gladstone’s writing and the events on the page meet together. In particular, this reviewer found herself enjoying Xiara’s highlight scenes the most. Like everyone else, she’s wrestling with the concept of the self in her own way; her particular iteration is, shall we say, bigger than most, or at least most expansive.
To say more would be a spoiler. Yes, Zanj, Hong, and Gray all have their moments, as does Viv herself. But Xiara is simultaneously the most accessible and perhaps the most out there of the band, in terms of what she can do, and it was a pleasure to read those sections in particular.
I’m not sure if I really liked Empress of Forever, though I can acknowledge that it’s good and was worth my time, but that’s really it. That’s okay, too. You can enjoy something without liking it enough to repeat it or even say that you like it.