You Should See Me in a Crown

Empress of Forever — Max Gladstone

Empress Of Forever

Max Gladstone’s 2019 Empress of Forever is a standalone space opera.

Oligarch Vivian Liao is certain that Earth’s shadowy masters have finally tired of her. She fears that in short order she will be immured in some deep-state prison, slated for a brief but memorable terminal interview with a torturer. She attempts to avoid this dismal fate by launching a daring bid to conquer the world. She will hack and control the world’s computer infrastructure. Bwahaha!

Before she can do more than start her attack, she is dragged off to another realm by an enigmatic woman in futuristic garb.

It does not take Vivian long to work out she is in the distant future. Good, because events happen very quickly around her, leaving her little time for thoughtful contemplation. Several factions have noted her sudden appearance. It’s miraculous! It’s significant! The factions attempt to capture Vivian. In short order she is on the run from the Pride (fanatical robots), accompanied by Hong, Brother Heretic of the Mirrorfaith, and Zanj Queen of Pirates.

Their flight is complicated by Vivian’s curious lack of a Cloud shadow. Other people can pass through the extra-dimensional Cloud as compressed information. Vivian can’t. This forces the group to flee via physical starship. How retro.

The far future is confusing and frightening. It has been dominated for eons by the Empress, who commands unparalleled power. When civilizations rise up to challenge her, one of two things happen:

  • the Empress notices them and crushes them

  • the extra-dimensional Bleed notices them and consumes them.

No good choices here.

The Empress is, of course, the woman who dragged Vivian out of her home time. Why a woman from a forgotten era on a homeworld that had barely mastered rudimentary technology would be of interest to the Queen of All isn’t clear. Nor is it clear why Vivian has some odd powers. She can break any lock that impedes her; she can issue commands that Zanj must obey.

Vivian didn’t get where she was in her homeworld by doubting that she is the most important person in the universe. If anyone were going to depose the Empress, it might well be Vivian. But first she needs to collect some allies.


Well, I’ve finally encountered a Max Gladstone novel about which I am not enthusiastic. Three reasons:

First, I didn’t care for Vivian, a megalomaniac who is pretty much her world’s answer to Lex Luthor. When we meet her, she is on the verge of conquering the world in a very literal sense:

The most obvious was that, in a world run by machines, she’d own the machines. Hello, robot army. All those cameras, all that surveillance tech, all the levers of censorship and control — her cameras now, her tech, her censors, her control. She could walk out of any prison and into any vault. Which sounded fun, but that was thinking small. The entire global financial system depended on the strength of its encryption. A truly strong, self-improving machine intelligence could tear through crypto. Simply revealing what she’d done, let alone doing anything with it, would shatter markets. She’d have a gun pointed at the head of the world.
And of course, she’d control the nukes.
The fuckers would crawl. Or she’d crush them.
She’d enjoy that.
Oh, and once that was done she’d fix the planet.

It’s not particularly surprising that the powers-that-be have contemplated dropping her into an oubliette. In a surprising twist (in a genre that often normalizes monsters) it turns out that she can distinguish between the greater good and her own ambition. But … she’s still a reformed monster and I did not like spending time in her head.

I was also put off by the extreme imbalance between her abilities and those of her companions. Who are effectively demigods. Zanj for example, can do stuff like this:

dropped to realspace to drink heat from an exploding star, she surfed a wave in a planetary ring, she stretched, strained, compassed the gap between galactic arms in a single jump.

It would seem implausible that Vivian could dominate a force of nature like Zanj, but she can. There is an explanation. However, the relationship, as shown, just did not work for me. Zanj is so powerful that she’s scarcely human. You don’t do friendly chitchat with a god.

Finally, the plot was repetitive: Vivian and her slowly accumulating collection of allies travel somewhere, encounter unforeseen complications, are captured (or menaced), escape by recruiting a new ally; lather, rinse, and repeat.

I expect everyone else will like this book a lot more than I did. It just wasn’t my thing.

Empress of Forever is available here (Amazon), here (, and here (Chapters-Indigo).


  • Monte Davis

    Excellent job, James. The book's as good an example of Slam-Bang Sensawunda Spa^h^h^h Cosmos Opera 2019 as one could ask for, and pulled me in pleasurably for 100+ pages (I was 14 once, and obviously Gladstone was too). But then, cliffhanger by cliffhanger and deus-ex-machina escape by escape, it started to feel like 'Avengers CXXVI: Showdown at the Big Bang.'

    I missed the thorough city-scale worldbuilding of the Craft series, its powerful-but-constrained demi(?)gods and its credible ordinary humans -- remember them? they're the specks at the margins of this book. I started to wonder how Vivian had achieved her backstory terrestrial success without some occasional boring research, planning and timing to go along with the Indomitable Will Or is she just Niven's Teela Brown or Bester's Odysseus Gaul writ large? SF or fantasy -- in the end, when absolutely everything's possible, nothing matters much.

  • Michael Grosberg

    I think you're even being a bit charitable. I thought it was a complete mess. The characters were shallow, the "romance" was not much more than an afterthought, and the worldbuilding had all the thoroughness of a Doctor Who episode. When things such as power levels, size, shape, time, and distance don't matter, the reader is left with no clear concept of the risks of any single action scene (I'm using cinema terminology because it seems to fit). Plus, this is all basically an sfnal remake of The Wizard of Oz by way of Farscape, isn't it? Consider: a woman from our world, thrust into a strange land (or galaxy) in which she has to gather a group of friend and confront the mysterious ruler (who's really into jade, rather than emerald) who just might get her back home. Along the way she will learn The Value of True Friendship!

    • Keith Morrison

      But did she kill the first person she meets?

  • Charlie Stross

    I loved it—especially Vivian's redemption arc—but it took a while for the penny to drop: the picaresque (or downright bumpy) plot is attributable not to Max but to the model he was emulating, namely the Journey to the West usually attributed to Wu Cheng'en, i.e. one of the great works of classical Chinese literature.

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