I sometimes find myself asking the question: has it all been done? Are there are any truly original stories still being written in the 21st century? Have we seen it all and what’s left is just iterations? Deep in my heart I believe the answers to be ‘yes’. But in order to continue to enjoy the experience of reading, I’ve converted the questions to: how does the author iterate? With R.S. Ford’s novel Engines of Empire the answer to the question is not the same at its outset as it is upon completion.
Engines of Empire is a fast-paced, multi-p.o.v. novel that looks to Game of Thrones for structure and Golden Age sf for content. The story is largely focused on one family (like the Starks) and the dispersion of its members across a kingdom in conflict as tragedy inevitably pulls them apart. But where George R.R. Martin gives the reader reasonably well fleshed out characters, Ford opts for the Edgar Rice Burroughs type of 1D, occasionally 2D, characterization. Plot of prime importance, putting the characters through the paces of capture, kidnapping, conflict, court drama—all the things that generate narrative tension, is priority. For people who like such dynamic, entertainment driven books, the pages will turn fast.
On top of characterization, there is likewise a lack of detail in other areas, including setting, dialogue, etc. Ford provides the reader enough to get an image or general understanding, but not a detailed or implicitly understood picture. Like a lot of Golden Age fantastical fiction, the reader gets bare bones—fast-paced bare bones, but still bare bones. For readers who enjoy sharp edges and clear colors, this book does not deliver. Generic nouns and verbs preside.
I feel dirty writing the words, but Engines of Empire has a magic system that is specific enough to be somewhat interesting and vague enough not to be caught out by its lack of connection to the world presented. Colors and stones are tangible as alchemy/magic, but precisely how they interact with the world is (strategically) left to the scene and moment. For readers who like such systems, Ford has come up with something reasonably original, but is not as palpable as it could have been.
When the history of early 21st century fiction is written, Engines of Empire will go down as pulp fiction. The times have changed, but they haven’t: the book flows in the same vein as the supernatural adventures readers of the early 20th century. Modern writers have greatly extended their narratives in terms of page length; Engines of Empire is double or triple the length of a Rice Burroughs’ book. But the m.o. is the same: basic characterization that feeds an empire-sized, fast-moving, fantastical plot. If that’s your bag, have a go. Otherwise, there are many other epic fantasies out there with more depth and sophistication.