Final Days is one of my favourite SF novels (review here), so much of a favourite is it that I was strangely deterred from reading its successor, The Thousand Emperors. I had no need to fear. Gary Gibson is a writer of the highest order and The Thousand Emperors didn’t just match Final Days, it exceeded it. Strengthening the appeal of them both is that each can be read as stand alone novels and have little to do with one another beyond their links to the hugely intriguing Founders Network. I would recommend you read Final Days first, though, simply because it is marvellous – there may be minor spoilers for it below.
The Thousand Emperors is set a few centuries after the events of Final Days. Earth is now dead and humanity’s survivors are scattered across the Galaxy on planets once connected by a network of wormholes but now split into two civilisations, the Coalition and Tian Di, where the novel is mostly set. The Tian Di empire broke free of the Coalition and severed all connecting wormholes, choosing to be ruled by a council of a thousand – the thousand emperors of the title. In truth, power rests on the the shoulders of far fewer near immortal individuals, the Temur Council of 85, led by Father Cheng. These are interesting times. Reunification with the Coalition is at last a real possibility, a connecting wormhole is being prepared. However, after centuries of indolence, the Tian Di is ripe for revolt again, but this time from within.
The rebellious force Black Lotus picks for its weapon Luc Gabion, an archivist who is seized by the leading rebel who inserts into his brain some kind of advanced technology which gives him the power to see visions and hear things he shouldn’t. It also carries with it a death sentence. When one of the leading members of the council is murdered, Gabion is picked to investigate and from that moment forth he begins a breakneck ride that is impossible for him to stop.
A series of conspiracies are gradually unravelled before us. The twists and turns are truly breathtaking. There are moments of utter shock and revelation. It is without doubt one of the most exciting novels I have read for a long time. I read it while on a camping trip and when I wasn’t able to read it I was thinking about it. This isn’t just because of the plot, which is fabulous, but because of the grand ideas and the characters involved.
Luc Gabion is fully realised – in his pain, confusion and dedication and heart. Beside him there is the intriguing Zelia de Almeida, the councillor responsible for Tian Di security who is so intent on having Gabion investigate the murder. This woman has lived for centuries and, like the other council members, to say there are secrets and false agendas at play would be putting it very mildly indeed. Things are complicated, lethally so. Gabion’s predicament is as dangerous as it can be, quite apart from the device in his head that kills him a little more each day. Cheng, the Coalition ambassador, members of Black Lotus, they are all fascinating. The evil when it is located is clearly enough to destroy everything, even perhaps unintentionally.
In the background is the Founders Network. Although it is believed sealed off after the apocalypse of Final Days, we are here given tantalising snippets of information about it and what might be hidden inside it. The horrendous events of Final Days inevitably still exert influence and dread.
There are moments of wonder, not least these glimpses into the Network, but also seen in the descriptions of the planets, their architecture and landscapes. A great journey across space is described and I won’t forget it. There is horror. There are societies and powers that evoke the horror of Stalin and Hitler. There is the most riveting, pageturning action. While The Thousand Emperors is on one hand an intriguing and satisfying detective story, on the other it is a belter of a science fiction action adventure.
I can’t praise Gary Gibson’s writing and storytelling enough. He makes science fiction accessible while not removing any of the science, vision and scope of the genre. I knew The Thousand Emperors would be good but I was blown away by it. This is my favourite science fiction read of 2013 so far although, as Gary’s next novel Marauder is published next week, it faces imminent competition.