The Killing Of Worlds - Scott Westerfeld

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Killing of Worlds
Book Two of Succession
Scott Westerfeld
Tor publishers
ISBN: 0765308509 (Amazon link)

Depending on your level of cynicism, The Killing Of Worlds is either the direct sequel to The Risen Empire, or the second half of the original novel, sawn in two for marketing purposes. Whichever way you view it, these two novels form a complete episode in an incomplete and possibly open-ended series. Personally, I'm happy with the splitting of this first story arc into two volumes for the quite ridiculous reason that I really like the cover design, and particularly the art, of this volume.

I reviewed The Risen Empire here, and as this is a series, many of my older comments still apply, and I don't want to discuss many specifics to avoid spoilers. What is more interesting is the question of whether I liked how The Killing Of Worlds concludes the story, and how it compares to The Risen Empire. Well, I did like it quite a bit, and I tore through it in a day which is always a good sign. Once again I admired the technical aspects of the writing and world-building. He's adopted a very simple authorial voice, sentences are short, lean, stripped of flights of fancy in favour of prose which directly advances the action. While I found this effective in the first volume, I thought that it didn't work so well in this volume. Without on-going world-building to add texture to the prose, the overall effect seems too lean. Part of me at times yearned for something richer, more lyrically descriptive - I almost got the feeling that I was reading a undemanding YA book. Still, this is very much a matter of taste, and normally I do enjoy this type of transparent prose, and it's something few authors do well.

What I didn't like as much was the pacing of the plot - some of the complexity of the plotting from the first book collapses, with the first third of The Killing Of Worlds being essentially a familiar Napoleonic navy stern chase. There's a market for this style of military SF, but I'm not really a big fan, preferring Patrick O'Brian's salt water version. I found this aspect of the plot a little over-played at the expense of the political and romance sub-plots which enlivened the first volume. Equally, the religious overtones which added nuance to both the Imperial and Rix cultures in the first volume seem to have been weakened, stripping some of the shading from the action sequences.

It's not going to spoil things if I mention that obviously the Lynx survives the cliff-hanger which closed The Risen Empire, and that Alexander finally gets off-world - it'd be a short sequel otherwise. What I found odd then was that all sense of suspense dropped away until rather late in the book, as neither cliff-hanging escaping event results in a suitably interesting tension raiser, and stripped of some of the novelty from their introduction certain elements, like the military strategy of the Rix, start to look shakier.

The primary plot element - The Emperor's Secret - is, in my opinion, somewhat of a let down, and again, the handling of it in this volume looks less credible and requires more exercise of your Suspension of Disbelief organ. The conditioning of the Apparatus is much too heavy handed to be useful, and the resulting denouement which capped the novel had an effective historical resonance, but lacked emotional impact. Westerfeld does make up that impact with a nice little coda, and in particular by a great closing line. I think my sense of disappointment in the almost mundane Secret was because there had been room in the world-building for something more complex to be the answer, but as an important and prominent plot-thread is never resolved, this might be revisited in later volumes.

Still, a lot of what I criticise above only came to me on putting this book down. While reading The Killing Of Worlds, I was generally too busy turning the pages to let these issues spoil my enjoyment of the story. No, other issues did that. In particular there was some dodgy copy-editing; 2^9 != 522, taught != taut, and a bit is not a unit of power. These I could, just, let go of, but my physicist's training flat out refused to let me deal with solid-projectiles travelling at a significant fraction of light speed hitting the Lynx and behaving like normal Newtonian cannon-balls. This is not exotic science, not in the year where anyone with access to news outlets has been hearing about depleted uranium rounds at much lower speeds...

What make this more surprising is that the author has made explicit, and credited, use of some of Wil McCarthy's ideas about programmable matter. Any reader who's going to get a kick out of that material is going to balk at the projectile issue, but I will admit to enjoying seeing Wellstone in another context, even if it veered dangerously close to techno-babble for plot purposes.

All this sounds very negative, more so than I intended. Go back and re-read my review of the The Risen Empire. I was in a more articulate mood when I wrote that, and much of what I found admirable there still holds. I do rate this novel highly, and while I think there are some pacing issues, The Killing Of Worlds has some very effective sub-pIots and some very smoothly handled set pieces to recommend it. It's not seething with invention like Charlie Stross' Singularity Sky and lacks the stylistic flair of something like K.J. Bishop's The Etched City (both read recently), but it's a very effective modern synthesis of several tried-and-tested SF elements. I merely found it disappointing to have the issues I mentioned above because The Killing Of Worlds could very easily have been a terrific book with a little editing and a little less authorial restraint. Reservations aside, if you want recommendations for modern space opera, I'll cheerfully suggest this alongside Walter Jon William's Praxis series.

Definitely worth reading, especially for those who enjoy Napoleonic style mil-SF.

Posted: Wed - February 25, 2004 at 02:15 AM