[Book Review] In Her Name: Empire by Michael R. Hicks

In Her Name Empire by Michael R Hicks CoverI don’t remember how I first ran across In Her Name: Empire, but I remember why I downloaded it:  Michael R. Hicks gives the novel away for free on his blog for nothing more than signing up to his newsletter.

I figured “why not?” and bought into his marketing.

The more I looked into the novel (and the series), the more intrigued I became.  I read the reviews of Empire on Amazon and a few other places around the internet and realized that it wasn’t just another SF novel.  Empire had a hybrid genre, with elements of both epic fantasy and science fiction woven together.  Since I try to do the same thing with my own novel and good science fantasy is hard to find, I loaded Empire on my Kindle and read it first chance I got.

Despite my increasing interest in Indie publishing, I haven’t actually read that many self-published books.  Empire raises that count to a solid 2.  Part of that is because I haven’t come across too many I’ve wanted to read, and part of it is because I have very limited reading time and know there is a good chance of getting burned by the complete chaff people put up on Amazon and pass off as novels.

I’ll be honest with you.  In the beginning, I was afraid In Her Name: Empire was going to fall into that category because the first chapter didn’t grab me at all.  The pacing was kind of skewed and the characters weren’t anything special, but the writing was actually pretty okay.  More than pretty okay, actually.

So I kept reading.

I’m glad I did.  The book really picks up after the first 10-ish percent, and I had already bought the second and third installments of the series off Amazon before I was 50% of the way finished with In Her Name: Empire.  I did not opt to buy the omnibus edition, though, because I read a review stating that it was packaged as a single book with no delineation between the three novels contained within.  I wanted that division, so I opted to buy the individual ebooks of Confederation and Final Battle instead.

Point By Point

Once the novel picks up, I mean it picks up.  The story doesn’t have many lulls.  Like many coming-of-age novels, it begins with the backstory of the awful situation our hero has to rise above so that we can all appreciate the man he becomes.  Like I said before, that part trudged along for me a fair bit, but once I got out of those initial chapters with characters I knew I would have no reason to invest in by nature of the genre, Empire became much more fast-paced with quite a bit of action—and not the Michael Bay, bad kind of action, either.

You know the kind I mean.  The kind of action that makes you just skip pages because nothing matters in it.  The kind where you read lots of description of acrobatics that you just can’t picture.  The kind with explosions and sword fights that are masturbatory exercises for the author’s repressed badass side?

Well, Hicks manages to avoid all that, and he even weaves plot into much of his action.  Very little happens in Empire without a reason, and as a reader, I appreciate that.  There are few things worse than a book that really needs narrative editing but doesn’t get any.

The majority of the novel takes place on the alien homeworld of the proto-Na’vi Kreelan race, a matriarchal society of blue-skinned Amazonians who worship their goddess-like Empress (In Her Name, get it?).  The protagonist, Reza Gard, is taken prisoner and thrust into slavery.  The narrative of the first book revolves around the Kreelans putting him through the ringer to determine whether he has a soul or if he is just a base animal.  I had an idea of where this story would go, but Hicks surprised me.  He did some new things with it (which is where his genre hybridity comes into play.  He was able to tell his story by bending the genre, rather than keeping with specific conventions that could have otherwise dictated the outcome), and that is what kept me reading.

If I have any complaints about the book, it would have to be that the Kreelans and their world/society are not nearly as alien as they are described in the book and that the dialogue and characterization sometimes seems forced.  Both of which I can attribute to genre tropes.  It’s just one of those things.  We read epic fantasy, and we expect their world and society to feel a certain way.  In In Her Name: Empire, it unfortunately makes Reza feel as though he is was transplanted into a historical fantasy set in a Roman-based world than a truly alien planet.

But I don’t think that’s a mark against Hicks as an author.  I cannot honestly think of a single SF narrative I have ever read where the aliens are truly outside the scope of humanity.  John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series comes as close as I can think of, but most SF writers rely on portraying alien races as either anthropomorphic or as evolved animals/insects to make them seem unfamiliar.  It’s a trope, but it’s a well-established one, and I can’t say that I am any better at avoiding it than anyone else.

The thing is, though, I can say all day long that the world didn’t feel alien enough or that the characters’ dialog took some getting used to, but at the end of the day, I was legitimately compelled to find out what was going to happen to these people.  Did Reza have a soul?  Was the Empress an actual goddess?  Just what’s going on with the bloodsong?  I found myself clicking “Next Page” far beyond the time I intended to stop reading because I hoped to find the answer to these questions, and like any good author, Michael Hicks gives us just enough information to sate our curiosity but make us read on into the next few novels for the real answers.

Regarding the dialogue and characterization, I feel that this issue will be worked through because this is the first in a series, and it takes a while for a long narrative to find its feet.  The slight awkwardness could also be explained by genre because epic fantasy is known by its melodramatic monologues and heroic speeches.  Just imagine the characters speaking as though they expect J.R.R. Tolkien to peek his head around the corner and give them a thumbs up.  And like I said, Empire is the first book in the first trilogy of the In Her Name series, which gives the author some time to see what works and what doesn’t.  I fully expect that the next few books to have more refined and natural dialogue.

I also very much like the cover art that Hicks has chosen for the series.  The SF backdrop with the iconic sword hilt superimposed over it inspired that “this is my kind of book” feeling in me.  Even though we’re not supposed to, we all judge books by their covers, and a poorly designed cover can easily make us think we spent too much on a book, even when especially when it’s free.  If the cover looks cheap, we expect the book to be of similar quality.  Michael R. Hicks recently reworked the original cover recently to bring it inline with the rest of the series, and I just love them.  I think they’re pretty.

Conclusion

In Her Name: Empire is a fairly quick read, and it’s just fun.  Since it’s free on Hicks’ website, you won’t be out anything but your time, and if you’ve been on the fence about reading Indie books because of the stigma and crapshoot odds of the book being worth your time, then Michael R. Hicks’ books are a good starting point.

I won’t say the book doesn’t have issues (heck, every book has issues—has anyone read Stephen King’s Under the Dome? Just where did that ending come from, anyway?), but the positives far outweigh them.  Empire is just an interesting look at how an author can have fun playing with genre, and the story works relatively well as a standalone, too.  I don’t see how you’d read it and not pick up the rest of the series (or just buy the omnibus to begin with), but if that’s your thing, then you won’t be disappointed.  You’ll just have some loose ends left untied.

Short version: Go read it. It’s free.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Comments

  1. But I don’t think that’s a mark against Hicks as an author. I cannot honestly think of a single SF narrative I have ever read where the aliens are truly outside the scope of humanity.

    The closest authors I’ve found for this ideal are C.J. Cherryh and Julie Czernada. Cherryh is good at making her aliens “think” differently. Czernada is a biologist by training, and so she puts a lot of effort into unique biological make-up of aliens and how that affects their behavior.

    • That’s the kind of author I love, Rohan. I really appreciate when an author can write something that’s completely outside of their field, yet use those experiences to make it real. I’ve never read either of those authors, but I really think I should now.

  2. Longasc

    I would like to second Rohan. But this is also what made her Faded Suns trilogy a bit tedious for me as the alien mentality was really taxing to endure at times. But well, one apparently really can’t have a cake and eat it, after all. 🙂

    Never judge a book by it’s cover – true, but we do it nevertheless. The cover is the first step into the world of the book and it can be misleading.

    I’ll read this in a while, I still have some books to review that are unfortunately very bad.

    • I’ve lucked out recently, to be quite honest. I haven’t read a stinker of a book in quite a while. The worst book I’ve tried was Richard K. Morgan’s WOKEN FURIES, which wasn’t bad, but it just felt like a tacked-on threequel that shouldn’t have existed. The first two in the series were great, but that one just didn’t work.

  3. *vlad*

    Steven King’s Under the Dome: yes, what the heck? Build up an interesting (if somewhat far-fetched) story towards a climax, and then just end it suddenly in a totally unexpected and unsatisfying fashion.
    All I can think of is that King had a really bad case of writer’s block, and took the easy way out. Probably the most disappointing ending since Dan Simmon’s Fall of Hyperion.

    Wierd aliens? Alastair Reynolds writes some very strange stories, featuring not just wierd aliens, but wierd humans too. Some of his books are great, some are infuriating, and whether you like or hate him is very much down to personal taste. House of Suns has plenty of wierdness, but I like it a lot!

    As far as wacky (and not to be taken too seriously) aliens goes, try David Brin’s Startide Rising. Well worth a read.