Parochialism can be a terrible thing. There was I thinking we Brits pretty much had space opera all sown up these days when along comes Scott Westerfeld to poke me in the eye with a ravening death beam. Well, a top quality piece of transatlantic sf anyway.
The Risen Empire is the first of a two-part piece of far-future hard-ish sf wherein humanity has split into at least three different branches and seems to have explored and settled a small but respectable percentage of our galaxy. The Risen Empire at the centre of this tale consists of 80 worlds ruled by - surprise, surprise - the Risen Emperor. The Emperor developed a form of immortality some 1600 years ago and has deftly wielded this powerful tool of social engineering to hold the empire together ever since by granting eternal life only to those he favours.
One group the Emperor definitely does not favour are the Rix, a cyborg offshoot of humanity who both worship godlike AI compound minds and see it as their life's work to propagate them all across the galaxy, much to the chagrin of all non-Rix humanity.
The Risen Empire successfully fended off a Rix incursion almost a century ago but now it looks like they may have to do it again, although this time the Rix have not come in force but have struck at a single outlying world and - disaster! - captured the Emperor's beloved sister. Only the Lynx, a single medium-sized Empire frigate that happened to be in the system, stands a chance of stopping the Rix invaders. The Lynx's commander happens to be in love with one of the Empire's senators, who is safe in the heart of the Risen Empire, and thus we get two stories for the price of one: a gripping action tale on the front line and a Machiavellian political one back 'home'.
Scott Westerfeld's writing shares some qualities with that of our own Richard Morgan - he writes combat sequences very well and has the same slightly geeky fascination with the stunning technology he envisages. There's nothing really that new in Westerfeld's galaxy, but he makes it all cool all over again.
Thankfully the Rix are no mere clone of the Borg but are presented as a rather misguided segment of wider humanity - all the more so because their 'gods' don't actually care about them at all. The Risen Empire is also not just another America in disguise but a complex and increasingly archaic social throwback, one that looks destined to lose this war; maybe not soon, but eventually and inevitably.
Clever, well-thought out and absolutely gripping - Scott Westerfeld writes deadly, cool spaceships just as well as fragile, warm people - sometimes even in the same sentence!