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Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: Empyrean Age

Empyrean Age
Why not a real cover?

In Empyrean Age, Tony Gonzales describes how the fragile peace between the four large empires comes to an end and war breaks out. The book is game fiction for the space MMORPG of EVE Online.

The following is a rewrite of a review I wrote for an EVE Online gaming community. I tried to adapt it to a more general audience. It should be noted that I am an avid EVE Online player, love the game, and love most of the fiction around the game. This book is one of the rare exceptions: I despise it. Also, please note that I only read the first part of the book, until page 127. I just could not get myself to read the rest. I usually do not stop reading a book in the middle, but here I did—it was that bad.

SPOILER ALERT. The following does contain major spoilers of the story.


The characters in the book fall into two categories. Either, they are paper thin cupboard characters who just show up, play their part, and then vanish without much motivation, or they are completely overdone and exaggerated to push an impression onto the reader. Sometimes repeatedly.

One of the most ridiculous repeating scenes I found was the “throw around an underling” special ability of protagonists. Jamyl Sarum, the Empress of the deeply religious Amarrian Empire, is described as a graceful woman, almost fragile. In one scene, she gets angry, lifts her aide up from the ground, holds her up, shakes her, and then throws her to the floor. A worthy Bud Spencer scene—but for the Empress? Ridiculous in and by itself, but it gets more ridiculous. A few pages later, Tibus Heth, the person to organize a revolt among factory workers, has finally reached his goal. He’s limping with one lame leg through the factory, he’s tired, exhausted. Someone upsets him—and he suddenly loses all the tiredness, the lame leg, everything, he lifts the guy up, shakes him in the air, and throws him to the floor. Sound familiar? Yes. He’s a protagonist, and that’s what they do.

Similarly, characters you are supposed to dislike are depicted in “explicit” scenes as despicable. Some corporation CEO is hiring prostitutes and he tries repeatedly to satisfy all three of them. This also leads to one of the most awkward sex scenes in a novel that I know of—not enough to count as "porn" and restrict the book to a mature audience, but detailed enough to not need any fantasy for the event. And all of this simply to make the reader despise this character as one of the “bad guys.”

This goes on. You get a diplomat who behaves completely undiplomatic, and gets rewarded for it, mostly because it pushes the story into the desired direction. Karin Midular, the person who lead the Republic from the first days after its rebellion into a stable empire equal to the other three, falls for the simplest ploys and acts as if she never did politics before, simply because that helps the story along. Most characters in this book are such cardboard ones, with the only features being completely exaggerated actions that push an impression onto the reader.

Deus Ex Machina

The story itself heavily utilizes deus ex machina events to solve most plot issues. There is at least one such event in almost every chapter I read. Something happens, the resolution is difficult, but out of nowhere and completely unmotivated, the grand savior appears and solves the issue.

An excellent example is the first appearance of The Broker (the personified Deus Ex Machina —it does not confuse me that he’s pretty much “the” character of the novel). I tremendously enjoyed the chapters in which Tibus Heth takes over the factory. Those are mostly well-written, logical, and tell a good story.

Tibus Heth rises up with his workers, takes over the factory, and at the end, overcoming a lot of resistance, they finally achieve their dream: The factory is theirs! Yay! And then they realize that they don’t know what to do next. Now they have what they wanted, but don’t know what to do with it. They have the factory, but now they also have the corporation police incoming, a large fleet outside … in short, they have a problem. They never planned this far. They didn’t even believe they’d get this far. What now? That is a great story. It’s awesome. I loved it.

There are so many possible ways to continue this story. So many plot options, so many great ways to develop from here. Well, unless the author is Tony Gonzales. For him, there’s only one option. Out of nowhere, The Broker ex Machina shows up and solves all the issues. He bought the whole corporation (and a few extra, just in case) and makes Tibus the boss of them all. Conflict solved. I had to put the book away for a day after that just to stomach such an incredible waste of a good story.

And just to kick the reader in the teeth about having completely screwed up a really nice plot, The Broker then does a spiderman/terminator mix by superhumanly climbing around the factory and jumping into molden steel, just to call Tibus Heth via commlink shortly thereafter. There was no need for that. There was no pressure. He could have simply left the planet with a shuttle. The only reason he pulls that stunt is to try and impress both Tibus Heth and the reader. To try and impress like a high school boy would, not like an intergalactic string-puller.

This then just goes on. After the mentioned undiplomatic diplomat ends his career with his horrible speech, a Mysterious Person comes out of nowhere and brings him to the Elders, who also happen to come out of nowhere to save the Starkmanir Tribe which comes out of nowhere but get stopped by an Empress who comes out of nowhere using a technological superweapon that comes out of nowhere…

A story needs some surprising turns. But in Empyrean Age, the surprising turn is a constant. It happens all the time. Every conflict is solved by something that shows up with no motivation and no prior introduction.

Story Type

Another issue is the existing context it was written in. It is game fiction for the EVE universe. This existing story sets a tone and setting for stories happening there, and Empyrean Age completely fails to fit in.

Epic Heroes

EVE Online is a dystopian future. Part of the setting here is that there are no epic, larger-than-life heroes. Everyone is just a cog in the machine, they all are subjects to impersonal forces, constraints and necessities of reality pushing them into doing those acts that make the universe even more dark.

Even the capsuleers, the immortals who control spaceships with their thoughts, are just subjects of these forces and can not help but push the universe further down into the abyss.

Contrary to that, Empyrean Age tells an epic tale of universe-shattering magnitude about great heroes who change the world with their simple actions. Who control the impersonal forces, and are above such necessities.

Shades of Grey

Similarly, EVE is full of shades of gray. There is no good and no evil. The Amarr might conquer and enslave other civilizations, but they also bring progress and peace under their rule. The Minmatar are oppressed and did do a successful rebellion, but they are also tribals with cruel rituals. The Gallente might be shining beacons of democracy, but they’re also cruel followers of hedonism and mob rule. In EVE, no one is simply good. At best, everyone is some form of evil.

Not so in Empyrean Age. The Amarr are really evil. They’re obviously all sadists who simply punish their slaves for fun all day long. Tibus Heth is a really good guy. He’s supposedly some kind of dictator, but in the part of the book I read, he’s the paragon of the caring leader, rescuing his people out of bad situations, risking his life to save some irrelevant worker, and so on.

I wish I could say that this might become better in the latter part of the book. Sadly, this kind of story is typical for Tony Gonzales. An earlier piece of EVE fiction by him, called Theodicy, contains exactly this kind of stereotypical black and white story.

Prior Fiction

Speaking of other pieces of EVE fiction. Tony Gonzales takes a great many liberties with prior work, sometimes even completely contradicting existing, official fiction of the universe. The game fiction is not consistent in and by itself, much to the dismay of many roleplayers, but Tony Gonzales apparently has no problems breaking with existing fiction because it’s in the way of his story.

That’s not how you write a story within an existing universe.

Needless Plots

Combining the disregard of prior fiction with the affection to Deus ex Machina, you get the way Empyrean Age approaches plots. Plots appear completely unmotivated by either existing fiction or the story itself.

Jamyl and the Elders are good examples of this

The Republic has been diverting funds to build a fleet against the Empire, at the expense of the well-being of its own citizens. That’s a great plot. Whether it’s prime minister Midular who has been doing this in secret and hiding it with her appeasement politics, or whether it was her opponent Shakor who did it in secret does not matter. You can build great plots based on that involving political intrigue and coup d’etat, or half a dozen other possibilities just with this.

But that’s not enough for Tony Gonzales. He has to introduce “the Elders,” mystical beings who are somehow larger than life, totally forgotten, and suddenly coming back. No one who played the game heard of them before. But in Empyrean Age, everyone knows of them as legends. And most of them also believe the fleet who claims to be the Elders are them.

There is no need for this. The story does not get better by introducing them. I’d go as far as to say that introducing legendary ancient beings from olden times is actually one of the worst ways to develop this plot line. But here they are.

Likewise, the Jamyl plot line. Jamyl Sarum was a character in an earlier plot line of game fiction, a possible heir to the throne, but failed in the succession trials and supposedly committed suicide. Apparently, she hasn’t, and she is now back to save her Amarrian Empire. So far, this is a good plot. That she hasn’t died is heresy and an insult to the Amarrian faith, but the Empire needs her now. This gives many options for conflicts to build a story on. But none of them are used. The Theology Council simply declares it’s ok what she did.

And she could have simply be a good leader with a plan who manages to pull the Empire out of the chaotic state they were in after the attack of the Minmatar fleet, organized resistance, and fought back. Suspense! But no. Instead, she finds an ancient artifact (another deus ex machina) that kills most of the hostile fleet in one go. This not only is a pretty boring way to finish this plot line, it also requires additional bad story work just to make said superweapon unusable afterwards again, as it would be too unbalancing for the continued conflict.


Empyrean Age uses pretty shallow plots that ignore existing game fiction and solves most conflicts with a deus ex machina. Characters are over-stylized to push the appropriate emotional reaction onto the reader, but otherwise remain thin.

Game fiction in and by itself is usually not the best kind of fiction, but even within game fiction, Empyrean Age reaches new lows.