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Kevin J. Anderson is a pretty hot property in science-fiction these days, almost exclusively on the basis of his media tie-in novels and his novels set in other authors’ universes. He has written a number of Star Wars novels, several X-Files novels, and also books set in Frank Herbert’s Dune mythos. Anderson has done a lot of playing in other people’s playgrounds, although to my eyes not always successfully. His Star Wars books, most notably his Jedi Academy trilogy, are partially successful — they capture the “flavor” of Star Wars fairly well, but his villains are not particularly menacing. (As a friend of mine put it, “Every time Admiral Daala appears she is either scheming or getting another one of her Star Destroyers blown up.”) I thought the Jedi Academy trilogy suffered from overplotting; the trilogy was filled with events that really had no bearing on the main story, and so the whole thing really could have been reduced to a duology or perhaps a single novel. His other fault was his tendency to throw in cute allusions to the movies that were really somewhat distracting. (Just because George Lucas sticks a THX-1138 reference into all of his movies doesn’t mean that the novels have to include them as well.) On the basis of Anderson’s Star Wars books, of which I was mainly ambivalent, I’ve avoided his other tie-in work. But now he’s got his very own backyard to play in, with Hidden Empire: The Saga of Seven Suns, Book One.

According to Anderson’s website, there are to be four books total when the series is complete. Thus, Hidden Empire is what one might expect: a set-up novel, in which the setting is established, the characters introduced, and the conflicts begun. Set five hundred years in the future, humans are colonizing the universe and coming into conflict with both themselves and an alien force called the Ildiran Empire. In typical fashion, the arrogant humans manage to set in motion events that have terrifying consequences as a war with a previously-unknown alien species erupts.

I enjoyed Hidden Empire, and I definitely plan to read the next volume if not the entire rest of the series. Anderson has a lot of interesting ideas here, and I want to see how they play out. Just about every trope of grand space opera is here: alien empires, both past and present; ancient artifacts of staggering power and unexpected results; mystical priests; space merchants and their travails with space pirates; the conflict of societies high and low; giant fleets of starfaring warships; high government conspiracies; antagonisms that must be buried in the face of grander conflict; unknown antagonisms that arise at the worst possible time; star-crossed romance; et cetera. Reading this stuff, you can imagine the sights appearing on a giant movie screen with a suitably-bombastic score — by John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, of course — highlighting the action. There are things here that I would love to see. I’d love to see the Skymines, floating through the upper atmospheres of the gas giant planets. I’d love to see the Ildiran home planet, with its seven suns. I’d love to see the diamond-hulled warships of the Hydrogues. I’d love to see the ancient Klikiss ruins, and the robots they left behind when they mysteriously disappeared. Anderson has a gift for evoking visuals in his prose, which was always a strength of his Star Wars work.

There are, though, a number of problems with the book. Some of them are problems of the “Book One” variety. Mainly, Hidden Empire is a set-up novel, so in reality not a whole lot happens in the first 120 pages; we simply look on as Anderson introduces us to character after character, gives us lengthy history lessons, shows us his technology, and establishes the conflicts that will play out later on. And even when things start to happen (roughly around page 120), it still takes to book a long time to build up momentum. In fact, the book doesn’t so much “build” as it suddenly kicks into high gear (around page 300 or so), and the last fifty pages are especially frenetic as Anderson goes about the business of leaving his characters, one by one, in a precarious spot to be resolved in Book Two. The pacing is wildly uneven, and I remember that being a prime fault of his Star Wars work as well. Perhaps if he had used fewer characters at the outset, and only introduced more once the pot was nicely boiling, the pacing would work better.

Anderson’s model in writing Saga of the Seven Suns is obvious: George R. R. Martin’s titanic fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. That series also features a cast of thousands operating in a war-torn world, and Martin’s books are even longer than Anderson’s. (The most recent volume of Martin’s series, A Storm of Swords, comes in at over 900 pages, in hardback, and that’s not including the Appendices.) Anderson borrows Martin’s device of telling each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character, so through the novel our viewpoint is constantly changing. Thus, there is no “Luke Skywalker” or “Frodo Baggins” in Hidden Empire; there is no single protagonist, but a series of characters — some likable, some not — who have their own parts to play. In Anderson’s hands, though, the device gets confusing because he uses too many viewpoint characters at once, from all over his world; Martin, on the other hand, starts with a small number of viewpoint characters and only adds more once he is sure we know who is who with respect to the characters we’ve already met. With Martin, while we need to refer to his Appendices to identify the supporting players, we don’t forget who Ned Stark or Tyrion Lannister are. With Anderson, though, I had to constantly flip to the back of the book to remind myself who Nira or Rememberer Di’osh were. This is distracting, to say the least. The other key bit of genius in Martin’s application of this viewpoint device is that we are never sure of who the villains are; everything is ambiguous. We think we are rooting for the Starks — except that Tyrion Lannister is a sympathetic character, and some of the Starks just aren’t likable. (And there is one character whom Martin grooms us to hate, only to have us sympathizing with him in the third book.) Anderson can’t match Martin’s subtlety of character; and so the wonderful sense of ambiguity that keeps Martin’s work fresh is absent in Anderson’s.

The other problem I have with Anderson, as I noted above, is his cute allusions. He specifically alludes to Martin’s work, borrowing a couple of Martin’s names for minor characters in his own work (Bronn and Stannis, to be precise). In Martin, to join the Men of the Night’s Watch is called “taking the black”, so in Anderson we have the joining of the Green Priesthood “taking the green”. The most irritating allusion was the name of the space pirate, Sorengaard. Of course, if I hadn’t been a philosophy major, I’d likely not have noticed the contraction of Soren Kierkegaard’s name; but I was, and I noticed. Little things like that seem minor, and I suppose they are, but they do have the effect of disgorging a reader who notices them. It’s the literary equivalent of going to see a movie and spotting the mike boom, only here it’s not the fault of the projectionist but actually the filmmaker. (And now there’s a contest for someone to actually get their name into next book. Sheesh!)

And finally, not really a complaint, but an observation: I hope the cover artist for Hidden Empire pays a royalty or something to Doug Chiang at Lucasfilm, because that cover painting is strikingly similar to the early designs for the underwater Gungan City in The Phantom Menace.

Hidden Empire is not a bad book, by any means. It does what every Book One is supposed to do: it’s got me planning to read Book Two. But it really could have been a lot better than it is.

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