Published: Tor Books, November 2006
Empire is a departure for Orson Scott Card. He made his name with Sci-fi and fantasy tales and rightly so. He is a superb storyteller and his books are amongst the most popular of the genre. Empire however is different. He describes it as a thriller, set in modern day America which follows the story of a young officer based at the Pentagon who has been assigned to attempt to predict how the “terrorists” will strike next.
To be honest, I was quite excited to have the opportunity to do this. I love Ender’s Game and the subsequent follow up books, and although Card does have a tendency to come across a little preachy, I don’t feel it detracts from his writing. I am also a huge fan of military thrillers of the kind written by Tom Clancy and Andy McNab. How could this possibly be anything other than a winner? The premise is good; on skimming through the blurb it seems both plausible and intriguing. This is a book I was really looking forward to reading.
I was however sorely disappointed.
If we set aside our disbelief that the entire American Government can be wiped out in a single strike by a History Professor working alongside a fantastically rich businessman, we are still left with a bunch of characters that we can’t empathise with, however much we try. We first meet our hero whilst he is on active duty and, to be honest, we don’t really like him. We never get to like him, or any of his companions.
[MAJOR SPOILER FOLLOWS!]
So when, surprise surprise, he is killed halfway through the story, we don’t care.
[END OF MAJOR SPOILER!]
We really don’t, and this is to my mind the biggest problem with the book. Orson Scott Card has, in the past, created some of the best characters I have ever read. He has created a race of alien teddy bears that turn into trees and made us empathise with them. Why then can he not make us care about people?
Which leads me onto my second point. In a way it is almost as if he sensed this deficiency in his work and instead of fixing it, he tried to fill the gap with high-tech gadgets. Bipedal walking tanks, hovercycles, an underground complex accessible only by draining an immense lake. It is like reading the worst possible mix of James Bond and Jack Ryan, except for the fact that we care about both of those characters.
However, despite all this, he still manages to keep us turning the pages. On more than one occasion I didn’t want to pick the book up, but once I did I had no trouble carrying on reading, which just goes to show how good a writer Card can be when he writes something worth reading.
In summary, this is a poor book; the plot is implausible, the characters stale and uninteresting, the technology almost laughable and the resolution nothing more than dull. If you want to read a cutting edge American military thriller, buy a Tom Clancy book.
(NB: Orson Scott Card has been interviewed by Patrick HERE at SFFWorld. He talks about Empire, amongst other things.)
© Jacquin 2007