Fiction Reviews

Empire of Light

(2010) Gary Gibson, Tor, 17.99, hrdbk, 393pp, ISBN 978-0-230-70681-1

(2013 reprint) Gary Gibson, Tor, 8.99 / Can$15.99, pbk, 562pp, ISBN 978-1-447-22411-2


This is the third in the Shoal sequence space opera and (possibly?) the last in a trilogy centring around the cyborg (she has head implants) Dakota Merrick. The first two novels in this sequence were Stealing Light (2007) and Nova War (2009). This book came out at the end of last year, though apparently Concatenation only got its review copy of the 1st edition hardback in 2011. The point being that it has taken a good three years (or more) to get to what is in effect the end of a single story that spans three books.

In the previous books we were introduced to a future in which humanity relies on another advanced species (the aquatic 'Shoal') for interstellar transport, as to other junior civilizations. Dakota Merrick has the ability, through implants, to interface with computer systems and is used to relate to a recently-found ancient, faster-than-light (FTL) craft built by some long-gone race that presumably originated in the Magellanic Clouds which are, of course, satellite mini-galaxies to our own Milky Way. The problem is that fly one of these craft into a star and it goes super nova: this presumably explains the many nova recently seen in the 170,000 light years away. Now the Shoal do not want any junior species getting their hands on these craft either because junior species are not considered responsible enough to handle star-system-destroying technology, or because they want to retain their monopoly on FTL transport.  We learnt in the second book that the Shoal themselves were at war with another FTL technology species, and Dakota having given the limited ability to convert some craft to FTL technology to a faction of human planets (through a technology cache left by the ancients), has gone bounding off to the farther reaches of our Galaxy to learn more about the 'Maker' of FTL technology who seeded out galaxy with caches. She leaves behind Lucas Corso who is responsible for distributing what limited FTL technology they have to various human-planet factions...

In Empire of Light Dakota soon finds a 'Maker' signal but is attacked by a robotic swarm: it appears that the Maker civilization was itself at war with another. Meanwhile Lucas Corso is having trouble keeping together the loose human affiliation he and Dakota have created and the various human factions are out to take control of their operation. If all that were not enough, the long-standing war the Shoal have had on their hands is not going well. What is needed is some sort of super technology of the Maker (or Maker equivalent level) for the Shoal to be saved from defeat.

Empire of Light is not the sort of book you can jump straight into: you really do need to read Stealing Light and Nova War first. Having said that, and as I indicated in my previous reviews, this is space opera that will appeal to readers of the likes of Reynolds or Banks (though I do not think that Gibson is quite up to the level of either of those SF grandmasters). It is, as is the whole trilogy, an interesting read and the SF tropes (interstellar conflict, robotic mechs, AIs, etc.) are handled deftly as is the plotting and the subterfuge therein. In short the trilogy is another triumph of British space opera novels that seems to have been punching above their weight in genre terms compared to their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic the past couple of decades: the current generation of Brit SF writers seem to do hard SF space opera rather well.

Gary Gibson is (and the publishers are) presumably playing the long-game. I say this because most sequences of books (such as Larry Niven's 'Know Space' of the 1970s and 1980s, or Iain Banks 'Culture' sequence of the late 1980s to present) tend to be stand-alone novels set in the same Universe and sometimes featuring the same characters. Even sequences such as Herbert's 'Dune' novels, while following a single coherent plot thread, are largely distinct stories. However this 'Shoal' trilogy has really been one single story split into three novels. Now this is not bad in itself but given that readers will have had to wait on average 18 months between each tale it does mean that some readers of Empire of Light will inevitably struggle to remember the finer detail of what went before. (The one-page 'previously' re-cap introduction simply does not hack it as there are too many balls in the air.) So hopefully now that all three books are out Tor will have the sense to re-release all three books in a mass market paperback edition sequentially, one per season (every four months), and with an appropriate promotional budget, in order that a large number of readers can appreciate this rather fine space opera. (I say 'hopefully' as publishers sometimes make some odd decisions due to the tension between editorial/reader aspirations and those of the publishers' accounts department who often fail to appreciate the cash value of longer-term ventures.)

So my firm recommendation is to seek out all three titles and then sit back to enjoy a rip-roaring, rollicking romp.

Jumping ahead from when this first novel came out to 2013 and Tor have reprinted all of Gary Gibson's novels (to date). This reprinting includes the 'Shoal' trilogy of which,as said, this is the concluding novel. When this trilogy first came out we had to wait a year for the next one and this was just enough time for memory of the intricate set-up to begin to fade. Today, you can get all three together and read them over a shorter period of time and this can only add to their enjoyment.

Jonathan Cowie

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