The Necropolis Empire (Twilight Imperium Book #2)
While the horror genre will always be my literary home-away-from-home, there are times when I find myself needing to take a break from the genre, especially when current events mean that reading and reviewing horror titles feels less like escapism and more like an increasingly-realistic vision of the near future. When that happens – as it does now with politics, pandemics and a war that seems to threaten to spread across an entire continent – I find myself gravitating towards more hopeful titles that offer flights of fancy and scopes well beyond this planet. There is perhaps no better time, then, to delve into my backlog of paperback novels kindly sent to me by the wonderful people at Aconyte Books and pluck Tim Pratt’s epic space opera The Necropolis Empire from the bookshelf and dive into the depths of a master-crafted epic space opera. The sequel to The Fractured Void, the first book in Pratt’s on-going trilogy of titles set in the Twilight Imperium setting, The Necropolis Empire continues the galactic-spanning narrative started in the first book, expanding it to encompass more races and more locations embroiled in a race to uncover ancient secrets and upset the fragile balance of power that exists in the universe.
As a brief recap, the setting of Twilight Imperium is a vast region of space that contains the numerous Great Races who were once the subjects of the mighty Lazax Empire; but when the Empire fell, centuries ago, the Empire’s former subjects liberated themselves and instead began scheming, plotting and waging war against each other in an attempt to seize power. Not only do mighty fleets wage interstellar combat in the depths of space, but secretive operatives and mercenary teams fight an endless war to procure the many secrets of the Lazax Empire – and other, even more enigmatic and dangerous foes. Following on from the deep-space action, adventures and treachery found in The Fractured Void, the plot of The Necropolis Empire focuses on the story of Bianca Xing, a young woman living on the isolated and remote former mining colony of Darit, whose life soon becomes incredibly complex when she is taken into custody by agents of an alien empire, who claim she is actually the daughter of a brilliant scientist, hidden on the planet to protect her and the secrets hidden in her genetic makeup. Now tasked with discovering the truth about herself and the role she and her DNA must play in the galactic community, Bianca and her reluctant protector, the fearsome Captain Dampierre, Bianca must discover her own destiny – and how it will shape the galaxy. The story, as conveyed by the back-cover blurb, sounded both exciting and intriguing, enhanced by another superb cover illustration by artist Scott Schomburg, and I couldn’t wait to see what Pratt had in store for me.
After several opening chapters where Pratt convincingly conveys the distinctly boring nature of life on Darit and Bianca’s limited life opportunities, Bianca’s life is irrevocably changed by the arrival of an occupation force from the fearsome and heavily militarized Barony of Letnev, one of the major players in the galaxy. While at first they only seem interested in collecting taxes from the colonists, agents from the Barony soon arrive at Bianca’s farm and inform her adopted parents that she’s actually the heir to a life-changing fortune in the Barony as the last surviving member of a noble family. Curious as to what the Barony agents are promising, and also seeing little choice but to accept the occupiers’ offer, Bianca travels to a massive, heavily-armed Letnev warship that promises to take her to her fortune. But the further the warship travels, and the more that Bianca comes to know the ships’s crew and their culture, the more suspicious she becomes. Eventually layers of deception are peeled away, and it becomes clear that Bianca is much more important than the Letnev want her to believe, and there are secrets locked into her DNA and memory that could fundamentally change the course of the universe itself. Soon able to forge her own path thanks to her ever-growing powers, and accompanied by a motley and eclectic crew of deserters, explorers and entirely-legitimate merchants, Bianca begins to discover the strange links between her abilities and the mysterious entity slumbering on a hidden planet with powers beyond even her comprehension.
As with The Fractured Void, it’s the characters that form the spine of The Necropolis Empire and make it such a fun and enjoyable slice of space opera fiction, with Pratt deftly mixing together a cast of new and returning characters to create and drive along a cohesive narrative; he has a knack for creating engaging and relatable people that he can quickly develop into three-dimensional characters after only a few chapters. This is particularly notable when it comes to the supporting cast. Undercommandant Voyou, for example, starts out as little more than a plot device to get Bianca off of Darit and onto a Barony warship so that the Letnev can analyse her. Yet throughout the novel, Pratt deftly develops Voyou into something of a secondary protagonist, or at the very least a very sympathetic antagonist; as an ambitious but also distinctly competent Barony officer without the megalomania that seems to infect the rest of the senior officers onboard the Grim Countenance, it becomes easy to root for Voyou when his compatriots are an obsessive, ruthless assassin and a warship commander who considers her entire crew expendable. Pratt also uses his talent and inherent understanding of the setting to flip expectations for character stereotypes, in pleasing and unexpected ways: it would have been very easy to portray the magnificently-named Heuvelt Angriff -‘former treasure hunter, lapsed gentleperson adventurer, current reluctant criminal’ – as a two-dimensional, stock villain along the lines of the Rogue Trader archetype from Warhammer 40,000. Yet Pratt develops Angriff into a secondary protagonist that we can root for, as he gradually realizes that it’s possible to tread a thing – but manageable – line between ‘pirate’ and ‘legitimate merchant’ by focusing on the joys of exploration and comradeship.
It’s incredibly important to focus on the subtle manner in which Pratt develops these secondary characters, as when it comes to the protagonist, Bianca, it would be incredibly easy to characterize her as a Mary Sue – an author stand-in with plot armour who cannot be hurt or impeded; and indeed I’ve seen some reviews make that exact statement. Yet I believe that’s ultimately a shallow reading of the character, and one that misses the nuances of what Pratt is trying to do with Bianca, both as a character and narrative element. Yes, on an entirely superficial level, Bianca does come across as an unbeatable protagonist – quite literally, given her incredible combat, healing and mental acuity skills that increase as time goes on. Yet Pratt goes to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate that the purpose of Bianca’s character is not about these abilities, but instead her journey to understanding her purpose and why she was created. While there are some superb action sequences involving Bianca, they aren’t excessive or devolve into gun-porn or its equivalent, and Pratt deftly uses Bianca as the central element of a spoke-and-hub construction that allows the secondary characters to develop as a result of working with Bianca – almost the opposite of a Mary Sue character. It’s all deeply impressive stuff and speaks volumes about Pratt’s skill as a character.
An increasingly common occurrence when it comes to titles published by Aconyte Books, The Necropolis Empire is a sequel that not only meets the expectations set by its predecessor, but actually manages to exceed them. Once again, Tim Pratt has delivered an energetic, thought-provoking and hugely entertaining slice of space opera, leavened with a quirky sense of humour and populated with a superb cast of well-rounded and memorable characters. Pratt is clearly having a blast writing in the Twilight Imperium universe, and I cannot wait to see what happens in the concluding title in the trilogy, The Veiled Masters, when its released later in the year. I’ll be grabbing my review copy right away, and you can be sure I’ll be reviewing it as soon as I can.