The Empress of Earth

by Melissa Scott

Cover image

Series: Roads of Heaven #3
Publisher: Nelson Doubleday
Copyright: 1987
Printing: 1987
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 290

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This is the third book in the Roads of Heaven series and should definitely be read last. I read this book as part of the Roads of Heaven book club omnibus. This sidebar information is for that omnibus, except for the page count.

It will be no surprise to anyone who's read even the beginning of Five-Twelfths of Heaven (or the title), and hence not a spoiler, to say that this third and concluding book of the trilogy is about Earth. As previously established in the series, Earth is a somewhat-legendary lost planet, known to be the birthplace of humanity but unknown and unreached since a destructive and disruptive interstellar war that's faded in to history. It retains the special significance and mythology typical of lost-Earth science fiction, though, and as shown in Silence in Solitude, the alchemical technology of Scott's world imbues Earth and the symbolic roads to it with special significance.

The lost-Earth idea was probably made most famous by the Battlestar Galactica TV series (both of them), but the idea is old in SF, dating back at least to Asimov's Foundation series in the 1940s. It's a wonderful source for story because it combines two primary modes of SF: building a detailed fictional world outside of the areas we already know and extrapolating its consequences, and using a fictional world as a different perspective from which to view our own. Readers (myself definitely included) love the sense of history and lost knowledge in a fictional world, and the opportunity to rediscover and piece together that created history, and seeking out a lost Earth is a great quest story with a goal that the reader automatically cares about. And Scott does use all of that here.

It's a perilous idea, though, because the introduction of Earth into a well-constructed fictional world produces a sharp reality check, and not all fictional worlds can survive. We the readers know Earth. We live in it, and it has mental weight. Some of the worst moments of the same famous lost-Earth stories are the moments when Earth is found. Much of the beauty of this series is in Scott's beautifully constructed alternate technology, and I was both eager to see how she'd weave Earth into that picture and worried that it would collapse the sense of wonder.

My verdict: it mostly works and provides a satisfying conclusion to the series, but it's not as good as the previous books.

I think the main problem is structural. After a tense and action-filled opening, The Empress of Earth settles into an extended introduction of not only a world but a contrasting society and understanding than the rest of the series. This does not collapse Scott's excellent technological system; in the end, it strengthens it considerably for me. But it takes a lot of pages, and while that's happening, the characters mostly get a tour and the story goes sideways. Scott has a lot of information to deliver and atmosphere to build before she can move on to the payoff, but that means events happen at a much slower pace. And because this is the third book of a trilogy about largely the same people, she doesn't have a lot of characterization to fill in and hold the reader's interest. I'm unsurprised by seeing complaints in other reviews that this last book is weaker or tends to wander.

But the fascinating alchemical technological structure of the series survives and deepens, and once one gets through the scene-setting, the rest of the story is worth the wait. It doesn't have quite the political complexity of the earlier books, but it makes up for it by having higher and strongly-felt stakes. Scott also does an excellent job of not over-explaining; there's enough history to let one piece together more, but without lecturing and dumps of data. It's also satisfyingly consistent. We don't get a detailed map of how the universe ended up as Silence finds it, but there's enough information to make some satisfyingly plausible surmises.

Also well-handled is Silence's growing capabilities. Scott does a great job making power and its use complicated and writing a main character who deals with uncertainty and makes believable decisions. The setting helps equalize power levels a bit, and Silence's abilities never provide trivial solutions to problems.

I wish this book had continued the constant improvement of the series and blown me away, but Silence in Solitude was going to be a hard act to follow. Scott is also tackling a difficult story to write, one that's badly tripped up more famous authors. The Empress of Earth is a solid, very enjoyable book on its own terms, and one of the better executions of the payoff of a lost-Earth story that I've read. Recommended if you've liked the previous books, although not quite on the same level.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-11-30

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