4 Recent Imperial SFF Reads

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I’m very excited to be posting here on FanFiAddict for the first time today and am delighted to have joined this inviting and lovely crew of fellow SFF lovers. And I’m just maybe feeling the pressure to impress everyone … so apologies in advance!

I have been keeping imperial company recently. From Emperox Grayland II and the Empress of the Dai Viet Interstellar Empire, to Edrehasivar Zhas, seventh of that name and the Empress In-yo who sat the lion throne – I’ve been hob-nobbing with the best of them. And while empires and emperors/empresses are nowhere near new to the field of speculative fiction, what I have enjoyed in these four stories are the human faces behind the mask of imperial power.

Perhaps you’ve already met? If not, then let me introduce you …

The Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi

Cardenia Wu-Patrick was never meant to become the Emperox of the Interdependency, but when her half-brother dies in an accident and her father from ill-health, greatness is thrust upon her. And of course, hers is the reign in which everything upon which the Interdependency relies for stability begins to crumble.

I’ve babbled online quite a bit about this trilogy in the last week or two, so much so that I was worried about including it in this post before I remembered, a lot of you don’t know me here! Mwa-ha-ha! So you maybe don’t yet know that I really love Cardenia. Through her we experience the frustrations of embodying incredible political power and yet being unable to change people’s basic nature. Of wanting desperately to save humanity from its impending slow death in the cold reaches of space, while too many others use the mounting chaos to make power-grabs and shore up their own wealth. While we watch the situation unfold through a number of different POVs, Cardenia’s remains riveting because she deals so effectively with the numerous attempts to unseat her.

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard

This was my first foray into de Bodard’s Xuya Universe and I frigging loved it! Here we make the acquaintance of the Empress of Dai Viet, Mi Hiep, in her later years but still a fierce and uncompromising ruler. Thirty years ago, she and her eldest daughter, Bright Princess Ngoc Minh, quarrelled, resulting in Ngoc Minh’s disappearance, along with the Citadel of Weeping Pearls, her flotilla of spaceships populated with the like-minded people she had gathered to herself. Now Mi Hiep faces a threat from the Nam Federation and the thirty-year-long search for her missing daughter (and the weapons in her possession) needs to be concluded.  

Mi Hiep is fascinating. She is confident in her power and position, yet also able to see that some of her past decisions were made from fear and frustration. She is a deeply flawed mother who wants to make some sort of peace with her favourite daughter, but also unable to see how she has neglected and perverted the life of her other daughter because of this favouritism. She is angry and disgusted with the Nam Federation for hijacking three Dai Viet mindships (incredible sentient vessels comprised of human and technological parts, which are, oh my goodness, so cool!), yet saw no harm in creating a mindship whose sole purpose was to search for Ngoc Minh. She is perceptive and obtuse and oh-so-human.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Like Cardenia, Maia should never have become emperor, but when his elven father and his father’s three sons die in a highly suspicious accident, half-goblin Maia is all that’s left. Having received no education in the ways of the court or politics, Maia appears to be at the mercy of sycophants and manipulators, but against the odds he gains trustworthy allies and learns what kind of emperor he wishes to be.

Maia’s humility is immediately endearing and ensures the reader is on his side from the get-go, but what is most engaging about his story is how his confidence in his own desire to do right by others grows over the course of this novel. Having suffered abuse at the hands of his cousin and keeper before becoming emperor, Maia has an understanding of how power can be used to force obedience, but he chooses another way. For a book with very little action but an abundance of conversation and social ritual (which seems to capture the quandary of being the most powerful person in any room, yet unable to do as one would wish) Maia’s story is unexpectedly gripping. His defeats feel personal, his victories a reason to break out the cake/beer/delight-of-choice.  

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

In-yo came from the far north. Scorned as a foreigner by the Anh court she quickly finds herself exiled after giving the Emperor the required son, an heir to the north, and is sent to Thriving Fortune with her handmaiden, Rabbit. But discarded women should not be underestimated and In-yo ends her life as the Empress of Salt and Fortune. This short, precious novella tells the tale of how that happened.

Of all the imperial personages here, the Empress In-yo is the only one we do not meet in person. Her story is told through the objects she left behind and through the now-aged Rabbit, who continues to tend for the house of Thriving Fortune. And it is perfect that it should be a woman considered beneath anyone’s notice who knows the secrets of she who became Empress. Both In-yo and Rabbit have been thrown away by the people who should value them most, and they become close. Through Rabbit we see the energy and anger that burns inside her mistress and friend, the compassion and grief that drives her. We also see Rabbit’s own story, one of love and sorrow and unwavering loyalty. And yet … And yet these two characters remain as much in shadow as in light, even after we know all that Rabbit has to tell us.  

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