At close to 500 pages, Empress of Forever is a hell'a lot of book. This is very much in the ballpark for what you might expect from any epic fantasy or space opera novel (and it feels very much like a merging of the two). Yet, the book is incredibly focused, and wears its theme like a well-earned neck tattoo. Because of this, Empress of Forever could have easily continued for another 200 pages. There's that much story to tell.
One might grade a book on how many dope ass moments the author can string together. In Empress of Forever, said dope ass moments and stunning concepts practically fall off the bone every chapter. Max's universe is a hopeful, unapologetically fun one that you actually want to live in. Hell, you might even prefer to die in it. And again, because of focused story telling, each D.A.M! does not feel forced or gratuitous. They're earned and build up to a satisfying payoff. This brings me to one of my favorite elements of the book, Max's surgical use of violence.
There are no sacrificial, plot lambs. Violence and death serve very specific higher purposes in the novel that force the reader to ask important questions. So what if you kill the space demon? What happens after you "liberate" the nation? What does it take to earn love? What is the self? What does true victory actually look like? True freedom? Intertwined with these questions are our expectations of a protagonist. Max bends them as well.
Vivian Liao is not an orphan. She's no farm boy, hard-boiled anti-hero, or messiah coming into her own. She categorically does not have a secret power that will blossom if only she believes in herself. Vivian Liao is a fragile human amongst monsters, aliens, and legends. At the same time, she is a planetary scale hero with admantine leadership qualities. Dear readers, that's how she begins the story.
Vivian's journey across the galaxy tears at the very fabric of the universe while remaining profoundly personal. Though Max introduces us to her one step removed from revolutionary, it becomes clear very quickly that she has a lot of growing to do before she can succeed, and we very much want her to succeed.
There is no such thing as the perfect story. Having said that, this is an objectively fantastic book. The prose will stun you. The world will hold you. The characters will make room for you. The following critiques arise from explicative necessity. Prospective authors should read and learn from this book.
As I said, Empress of Forever could have easily been over 700 pages, but is edited down to under 500. This may be required by the industry, but there are a few scenes that could have used more room to breathe. Having said that, they still work very well, because the storytelling is laser-locked on its target. The point was never to spend the entirety of the special effects budget.
My final critique is that this is not a book written for readers who want to shut off their brain. There is no autopilot in the Cloud. Empress of Forever both offers and asks the universe of you. The last climatic fight scene alone demands close reading and consideration. This is a good thing. What's the point of a story that leaves the reader the same as how it found them?
Empress of Forever is a challenge to other authors as well. My hope is that Max's novel is an overture, herald to space opera that takes our collective heart, and laughing against the pain, pushes us to go faster.
"Come on, let's go exploring." - Vivian Liao
P.S. Max, who do you imagine playing the part of Zanj in the series? Or better yet, doing the art for the comic book?