Time has passed since the end of Conquest, the first in the excellent YA SF trilogy Chronicles of the Invaders. Events have had consequences. What that means is that you must tread no further if you’ve not read Conquest – spoilers for that books would be extremely difficult to avoid in a review of its sequel. And do please read Conquest. To do so means you have such a treat in store – Empire is flipping marvellous!
Earth is now left behind and our pair of starcrossed lovers, one a human and the other a member of the alien race (the Illyri) that subjugated Earth, are light years apart. Syl is now in the Marque with the all powerful, sinister Sisterhood while Paul, like many other human rebels, is fighting as a conscripted soldier in the Illyri starfleet. But nothing is straightforward. While Syl struggles to maintain her identity and individuality among the mysterious and secretive sisters, existing in what is little better than a prison, Paul has come into his own, becoming almost equal to the Illyri in his combat team, proving his worth and valour time and time again, just like his brother, a gifted pilot.
For much of the novel we move between these two stories, knowing that each is thinking of the other, and waiting until the movement of the book brings the two together as it inevitably must. The time we spend with Paul is action-packed and high adventure – they investigate the disappearance of the colonists on a planet of sand. What they discover is truly terrifying and lethal but that is almost as nothing compared to the danger they are placed in by the conspiracies and threats that they unearth as they move through light years of wormholes. The tension between human and Illyri aboard the craft and in the chain of command is fascinating, adding tension but also depth to the relationships.
Meanwhile Syl has much to endure among the Sisterhood. She, too, discovers secrets but she is hampered, rather inconveniently, by her closest friend Ani who has become treasured as one of the sisterhood gifted thanks to her psychic powers. Ani and her new friends have between them a lethal cocktail of skills that Syl must use all her wits to foil.
It is impossible not to like the Illyri. In Conquest we saw the consequences of the Illyri domination of Earth but this is not a simple case of black and white. There are monsters among the Illyri, and we see them in their full evil, but there is also good.
I thoroughly enjoyed Conquest but I think that Empire stands head and shoulders above it. The movement from Earth allows the authors to paint new worlds and I loved where we were taken. Each of the planets we visit is evoked beautifully. It is a very visual book. I especially liked the descriptions of the Marque – an intricate world of caves and caverns with something deadly lurking outside its walls. Likewise, Illyri itself is presented as a heavenly place while other planets, and their inhabitants, are the very opposite. The action is fast and furious but there is also quieter drama that is no less lethal, the worlds of Paul and Syl contrasting. The conspiracies of Conquest explode in Empire. We learn a lot more about what is going on. We miss characters from Conquest but I suspect that some will return in the final book of the trilogy. Meira, one of the highlights of Conquest, exists in the wings for much of Empire but she is given her own short section which gives us more of the background. Romance between Syl and Paul remains difficult – the distance between them compounding their other more obvious differences – but both figures are wonderfully drawn, with neither one outshining the other.
Empire is such an exciting, fun novel. I found it utterly engrossing, confident and sophisticated. It is a substantial length, too, and I really liked that. The authors have time to develop the plot while creating a richly diverse universe through which to thread it. Conquest set the stage very well but Empire, now Paul and Syl are free of the Earth, flies. This is YA science fiction at its best – great characters, thrilling plot and action, breathtaking worlds, aliens and monsters, big themes – and would appeal to readers of all ages, young or less young.