Engines of Empire


Richard S. Ford


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

August 6, 2022

ngines of Empire is a boilerplate fantasy novel, with routine characters, careless world-building and truly bad plotting. I did eventually slog my way to the finish of this 575 page book, but Engines of Empire is one of those novels that is easy to set down and hard to pick back up again. Engines of Empire is book 1 in the Age of Uprising, but I won't be reading book 2.

Engines of Empire tells the story of Lady Rosomon Hawkspur, who leads the powerful Hawkspur guild. Her brother is Sullivar, the Emperor of Torywyn. Rosomon has three children: Conall, a soldier; Tyreta, a webwainer (magic user); and Fulren, an artificer (maker of magical instruments). Each chapter focuses on one of these four characters (though occasionally a chapter is spent on some other character, such as Lancelin the swordswright). Each of these characters follows their own story arc, but all of them are "reactive" - events happen, and the character must respond. None of them are working toward any particular goal, they simply exist to overcome whatever obstacle Ford throws at them (and Ford throws many challenges at his protagonists, it seems as if the novel is one meaningless confrontation after another.)

At the beginning of the novel, Ambassador Assenah arrives in Torwyn leading a delegation from Nyrakkis - a kingdom on the other side of the island with whom Torwyn has had no contact for 1000 years(!). So why is the kingdom of Nyrakkis seeking a trading treaty after all these centuries? Ford never bothers to explain. Ambassador Assenah brings a chest full of valuable red, blue and yellow pyrestones - an extremely valuable gift. What does the kingdom of Nyrakkis want in return? We never find out because Assenah is assassinated and the proposed treaty is immediately forgotten by everyone, because it has served it purpose to advance the plot, and thus Ford discards it.

Plotting is Ford's biggest weakness. For example, how do the assassins know ahead of time that Ambassador Assenah will foolishly leave her "towering escorts" behind that day? How do they know that Fulren will impulsively suggest a visit to the Great Library? Yet somehow the the assassins have instructed the librarians clear all the patrons from the stacks, and then to depart from the library themselves so that the killers can carry out their bloody attack without any witnesses.

The entire novel is rife with bad plot points. Time and again Conall / Tyreta / Fulren face imminent death, only to have an unexpected ally miraculously appear and save them at the last second.

Cornered in the icy, trackless wilderness by four knights of Nyrakkis flying on lizards?

Framed for murder by a corrupt captain, about to be decapitated in punishment?

Cornered in the jungle by a hungry panther?

Threatened by a kesh warrior who about to hurl his spear?

I understand that Ford is trying to make his story exciting by putting his protagonists in harms way, but when every deadly encounter is resolved by incredible luck, the dangerous situations that should be exciting instead become boring. The reader knows that some outrageous coincidence will save the Hawkspurs, no matter what sort of peril they appear to be in. Late in the book, Lady Rosomon mourns the death of an important character, but the reader knows that some miracle will rescue the doomed character, and so what should be an emotional scene is just tedious. You want to shake Lady Rosomon by the lapels and scream: "of course he's not dead you silly twit! Ford will send the deux ex machina to save him!"

Ford's world building is also disappointing. Ford doesn't appear to have spent much thought in constructing his fantasy world. At one point, Conall is sailing on a ship that encounters a ferocious storm. The sails are rent, the masts fall to the deck, the timbers creak. The funnels are struck by lightning, black smoke pours out, the engine turbines scream. What the heck? Is Conall on a sailing ship or on a powered ship? What kind of ship would have both sails and smokestacks? Wouldn't the funnels block the wind from reaching the sails? Why would a ship powered by pyrestones even need funnels to emit black smoke? Ford has been disappointingly vague on how the pyrestones function, but black smoke isn't mentioned when the pyrestones are described in other operations. Naturally, Conall is cast overboard in the raging storms and it seems certain he will drown.

Torwyn is described as an empire, yet it seems to occupy half of a small island with Nyrakkis - an island so small that a War Eagle can fly across it in a day or two. Why haven't the two kingdoms communicated in 1000 years? They could easily sail around the coasts to visit each other. A wasteland called "The Drift" splits the island in half. Apparently this is a dangerous no-man's land where no one ever ventures. Yet, despite that fact that there has been no contact for a thousand years, when the Nyrakkis flying ship passes over the Drift, a troop of raiders is immediately ready to leap upon their flying beasts and launch an all out attack to the death for no apparent reason other than that Ford felt it was time to add some excitement to the plot.

I was also annoyed by the intense stupidity of the lesser characters. Tyreta warns the chancellor of New Flaym that a horde of barbarian kesh is about to attack the city, but of course the chancellor and all his aides won't even consider the possibility that her warning could be true. Conall brings back a marvelously crafted blade that proves someone is arming the durrga, but Frontier Marshal Beringer is such an idiot that he refuses to even look at the undeniable evidence of a grave threat to his outpost.

Engines of Empire is a flawed book, which is surprising, since Ford has written at least seven other published novels. By now, he ought to be a polished author, capable of much more than this jumble of aimless attacks and miraculous saves. This book is not recommended.