Empire of the East

by Fred Saberhagen

Cover image

Series: Empire #1
Publisher: Baen
Copyright: 1979
Printing: April 1990
ISBN: 0-671-69871-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 558

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The opening of Empire of the East is time-honored fantasy cliche. A powerful good wizard holds out against evil torture and shouts out the defiance of great powers before dying heroically in a prelude, and then the family of a teenage boy working the fields is murdered by evil soldiers and he sets out on a journey of revenge. There are few openings more stock. Don't move on to the next book review quite yet, though; there are a few features of this book that warrant additional consideration.

Empire of the East is a combining and reworking of three earlier short novels from a time when novels were the length of today's novellas. The original books, The Broken Lands, The Black Mountains, and Ardneh's World, survive as the three parts of the book, and there are definite breaks and jumps in time between the parts. But there's enough coherence to the story arc that Empire of the East reads like a novel rather than an omnibus.

Empire of the East is also the backstory for the far better-known Swords series (starting with The First Book of Swords. Saberhagen wrote it first and then built the long-running Swords series on its world background, but I read the initial Swords novels first and then later read Empire of the East. I loved the filling-in of backstory and explanations of the world background from reading out of order. I still recommend the experience, although perhaps not as strongly as I once did.

When I first read this book as a teenager, I adored it. I've re-read it several times (although not for many years before this last re-reading) and for a time it was one of my favorite novels. Having read it again with more experienced eyes, I think that's less because of the merits of the story and more because it was the first novel about the reintroduction of magic after apocalypse that I'd read and Saberhagen's handling of the idea fascinated me. If you've been exposed to this idea elsewhere, I doubt the book will catch your imagination the way that it caught mine, but it's still a worthwhile treatment.

The first part follows the epic fantasy plot the closest and is therefore probably the weakest. Rolf falls in with a band of outlaws fighting for freedom against the impressive evil bureaucracy of the East and helps them as part of his quest of revenge for his family and his search for his sister. Their best hope is to find the mythical elephant, an ancient war machine whose identity is given away by the 1990 Baen cover and which isn't hard to work out from the text without that. (Ancient, as one quickly learns, normally means high-tech.) Saberhagen does break up the typical epic fantasy plot by changing viewpoints between Rolf's story, the rebel leader and his experiences with a magical stone in the desert, and several of the bad guys, but the first part ends about as you could have predicted from the first few pages.

It is worth noting, though, that Saberhagen is one of the best writers of gadget fantasy (sort of a translation of the mindset of hard SF into the world of fantasy), and a mix of magic and half-forgotten high technology is a good setting for him. The characters have to puzzle out both technology and magic, and half the drama in the book is trying to work out just why some object behaved the way it did or how to most effectively use it to solve a problem. If you like that sort of thing, even the first part isn't bad, even though the main characters in the first part are sadly interchangeable (the supporting characters fare better). And it gets better later on.

The second part is much stronger since it features a character who was the noble villain of the first part and follows a reasonably realistic change of heart, giving it the most characterization of the novel. It also features far more interesting magic and technology; Draffut makes his impressive and memorable appearance, army field helicopters are put to frighteningly effective magical use, and demons come on stage. If one must do black and white morality, Saberhagen's demons are at least a satisfying black. The plot again centers on working out how best to use both magic and technology in the right place and time, mixed with a hunt for a demon's hidden life (a trope that Saberhagen will use to great effect repeatedly in the Swords series) and a healthy dose of tragedy. Draffut is one of my favorite characters of the series and I think this was the strongest part of the book.

The third part is the payoff and explanation of what happened to the world, and for fans of the Swords series, a wonderful bit of background that explains a great deal of what happens later. Unfortunately, that explanation is provided mostly in the form of wads of exposition following a rather tedious bit of being chased around the desert; the characters are sidelined for most of the book. I like the villains (Saberhagen in general does good black-hat villains, at least if you're not looking for moral ambiguity), and watching Ardneh outthink everyone is satisfying, but it leaves something to be desired as story. Still, if you like poetic justice, magical logic, and mixing of technology and magic, it's enjoyable. When I was younger and less picky, I loved it.

I have a soft spot for this book and appreciation of it as background for one of my favorite long epic fantasy series, so I'm probably blind to some of its flaws. Saberhagen is a workman writer who doesn't blow you away with his prose but who tells twisty stories with lots of neat gadgets and magical treasures and who thinks through the details of his world. For example, I still consider Empire of the East's elementals to be the best example of the idea due of the effectiveness of Saberhagen's descriptions and the clean rules he develops for them. If Saberhagen puts a gun on the mantle at the beginning of the book, not only will it almost always go off, you'll probably learn something about how it was built and when it can be fired before it does.

Recommended for fans of the Swords series, for fans of gadget fantasy who don't mind undistinguished characters, and for those looking for world-building that mixes medieval fantasy and modern technology. Others may want to give it a try when in the mood for a light fantasy with plenty of plot momentum, but avoid if you want deep characterization. Empire of the East is a common used-book-store find, and that's probably about the right price.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-07-01

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21