Hidden Empire by Kevin J. Anderson – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first book in the Saga of Seven Suns series.
“Even though at times it is quite brilliant, Hidden Empire still fails to rise up the promise of the opening chapters and loses steam as it goes on. Not a bad book per se, but it could have been a lot better.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
In the main, I’m quite a fan of Kevin J. Anderson’s work. His Star Wars novels are fairly good ones. His Dune Chronicles novels that he’s co-written with Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert are almost as good as the deceased master’s (I’ve read only one of those however). The other Dune novels that the two of them have written have also been pleasant reads. And Anderson’s Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy was also fairly good. But with this book, I’m not sure I like it as much as the others. It feels too similar to Legends of Dune and Terra Incognita in that there is a really huge cast of characters and a really sprawling, huge setting, but with the unfortunate addition that the story doesn’t exactly go anywhere. The book is too complex because there are just too many characters. That’s not an issue I had with either Legends of Dune or Terra Incognita, but it was definitely an issue here.
First and foremost, I definitely love the setting. There are some tropes that the author uses, such as the long-lost ancient civilisation, the up-and-coming humans, the elder alien race that dominates known space, and so on, but I still had fun. If there is one thing that Anderson is brilliant at, it is at creating a setting that is richly detailed, a setting that acts as a character rather than being background dressing. The Terra Incognita novels were brilliant at this aspect, and so is Hidden Empire. For a space opera book/series, I consider it quite vital for the story to be set in a really epic, large-scale setting. There is always room for “smaller” space opera stories, and I’ve read quite a few that are like that, but I find that for me, space opera works best when the setting is full to the brim with exciting races, worlds, factions, etc. Space opera is like the science fiction analogue for epic fantasy. The worlds of Middle Earth, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Warhammer Fantasy, etc translate really well in the worlds of Star Trek, Stargate, Star Wars, Warhammer 40,000, etc, to use a few well-known pop culture names. I read epic fantasy and space opera because I want to immerse myself in these vast worlds, and read about classic struggles of good versus evil or heroes and heroines fighting the long odds or what have you. And in that respect, Hidden Empire hits all the checkmarks for me.
But, then comes the kicker, sort of. First off, I won’t deny that Hidden Empire has a really good few opening chapters, where some scientists are about to turn a gas giant into a star, utilising some really ancient tech recently discovered by a couple of xeno-anthropologists. Right then and there, Anderson pulled me in, and kept me turning the pages. I didn’t even mind that all the chapters were barely a few pages long (5 or 6 at best) and that there were a lot of characters being introduced, because the story being told at that point was tight, and it was cohesive, and it played up to the grand nature of the space opera genre by showing the big-stuff, the grand things. I mean, come on, a gas giant is about to be transformed into a star. How is that not space opera of the best kind? It was for me.
Thing is, however, that after that entire sequence is completed, we get to meet several new characters. And then a few more. And yet more a few chapters later. It is almost a parade of characters, and combined with the really short chapters, Hidden Empire feels at best to be a disorganised book. There were too many characters competing for my attention and even though there were a few that I was rooting for, several characters appear only after like 7 or 8 chapters. Another way to look at it is that there were too many side-plots going on that tie into the meta-plot of the book itself. And by its very nature, the first novel in a series of 7 novels and all really big books at that (clocking in at about 650 pages for Hidden Empire), it is all set-up. So a lot of the conflict that is present doesn’t have a proper resolution since this is how things are beginning to go south. I didn’t enjoy the novel as much as I thought I would.
That really is the biggest weakness of the book. There are quite a few of these viewpoints that could have been cut, allowing the author to write a much more focused story with a much better pacing as well.
Added to all that is the fact that sometimes the prose is too simplistic. And this makes me remember my experience reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, which is a really wonderful novel with a complex narrative and a really enjoyable rich setting, but it also focuses on a very small cast of characters, even thought it too has a simplistic prose. And by that I mean that the prose isn’t packed with too many complex (or witty) turn of phrases that the reader has to think twice about. To go back to Dune, that too is a novel with a large cast of characters, much like Hidden Empire, but it tells a much more focused story since there is a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys, and there is a clear protagonist and antagonist in the novel. And it is still one of the best space opera novels I’ve read to date.
In Hidden Empire, I wouldn’t have minded the simplistic prose as much as I did if I had found the characters to be much more engaging. Too many of them are locked in trope portrayals. We have the manipulative ruler who “rules” from behind the scenes (Basil Winceslas). There’s the naive and young apprentice visiting an alien culture and being awed by the surroundings (Nira Khali). We have the dedicated and naive researchers who are oblivious to what’s happening in the rest of the galaxy (Margaret and Louis Colicos), and so on. Not all of them are bothersome, though, and there are quite a few characters I liked, such as the aforementioned xeno-anthropologists who manage to capture a very realistic sense of wonder about the setting, merchant captain Rlinda hKett who brings a rather roguish vibe to the novel, Ambassador Otema of Theroc who captures the cautious cynicism of her people quite well, and a few others. Unfortunately, as I alluded earlier, my favourite characters did not get all that screen time. In fact, Margaret has a 19 chapter gap between her own chapters at one point!
On the flipside, I loved some of the twists that happen in the second half of the novel. As is so common in science fiction of this kind, the experiments run on the gas giant Oncier result in some disastrous consequences for everyone in the Spiral Arm, whether it is the Terran Hanseatic League (love that name!), or the gypsy-like Rovers (an independent human faction), or the aliens known as the Ildirans who helped guide the first human sleeper ships to verdant worlds and have existed as a peaceful civilisation for thousands of years. Seeing the narrative flit between the viewpoints of everyone involved does give you a rush of adrenaline and excitement, when things inevitably go south and all the careful plans laid by certain individuals on all sides go belly-up. If the pacing had been spot-on, the second half could very well have been really excellent, but the pacing was indeed off, rushed in fact by then, so it wasn’t as enjoyable.
In conclusion, Hidden Empire definitely has a lot to recommend itself, but it also has some serious flaws, namely pacing and a too-large cast of characters. It all just makes the book feel bloated, and thus unnecessarily long, contributing to more of a negative experience than it would have otherwise. All the same, I’m not averse to reading the second book in the series, A Forest of Stars. Perhaps I enjoy my space opera too much to be all that negative!
Note: This novel is graded according to a new ratings system, the details of which can be found here.