The definitive end to the [Amarr] Empire’s expansion was the infamous ‘Battle of Vak’Atioth,’ named after the system where Jovian forces decimated the Imperial Navy, thus opening the floodgates for a mass rebellion among Amarr’s vast slave population, and ultimately leading to the creation of the Minmatar Republic
A BOOK ABOUT A SPACE MMO
The above is taken from a book titled EVE: The Empyrean Age. Written by Tony Gonzales, it is a work of science fiction that spans the EVE galaxy from the four reaches of empire space to nullsec and back again. Ambitious and grand in scope, the novel weaves a litany of characters into several narrative arcs in a grand total of 672 pages.
Yes, The Empyrean Age just happens to be a book based on a massively multiplayer video game. I feel it is worth stating the obvious; books about video games carry a good deal of baggage, and I should note that I went into reading this work with all that baggage in mind. Up until reading The Empyrean Age I had never touched a book based on a video game property, I was content to point and laugh at all the Halo and Warcraft books taking up space on the shelf at my local bookstore. Nerds read video game books, and I was not that sort of nerd.
My expectations were thus set extraordinarily low. The tale of this review is not that I encountered a book that dazzled me beyond all expectations, but it is also not a hate-filled screed against the author and his inability to write. My feelings about the book are decidedly mixed. I am inclined to give Tony Gonzales a little credit for tackling something with the sheer scope of The Empyrean Age. By that same token, I also think the book suffers dearly for being overly ambitious. Overall, I have serious misgivings about The Empyrean Age and feel it necessary to take my time in sharing my thoughts about the book as a whole.
UPSIDES OF A GARGANTUAN NARRATIVE
By being set in the EVE universe, The Empyrean Age has the advantage of an enormous galaxy with a decent backstory already developed by CCP. I imagine this is a wonderful blessing and terrible curse for any author and do not envy the task of trying to channel the mindset of eccentric Icelandic game developers into a coherent narrative. Worse still, capturing the feel and tone of a video game into book form is something I would never want to attempt. To Gonzales’s credit, I think this is the strongest point of The Empyrean Age. The work is dark, violent, and occasionally downright depressing. The characters are largely morally ambiguous people with human motivations for the actions they take, and this is clearly not a book where the forces of good must marshal together and defeat some terrible army of darkness.
Further credit where credit is due, The Empyrean Age serves as a wonderful crash course on the politics and history of New Eden. My favorite parts of the book often involved historical and cultural explanations of the state of the EVE universe, the quote at the start of this review being the beginning of one such explanation of the current state of affairs in New Eden. My favorite character exchange involved a capsuleer explaining to a ten-year old Minmatar boy the general principles of capsuleer technology. The exchange obviously existed to provide such an explanation to the reader, but it was executed well enough that the video game nerd in me ate it all up.
Finally, Gonzales does a competent job demonstrating the sheer scope of the EVE universe. He uses a large ensemble cast of characters with a dizzying array of motivations. Several different and completely unrelated narrative arcs are playing out at the same time in this novel and Gonzales does a good job at keeping the events distinct from one another and only connected in modest and largely tangential ways.
STILL A VIDEO GAME BOOK
All the praise I just gave this book cannot make up for its glaring and terrible faults, which are many and legion. Fundamentally, the book downright irritated me. Most damningly I frequently struggled to be interested in what was actually happening on the page.
The characters are a cast of victims, assholes, and shallow narrative devices. The entire crew of the Retford are unsympathetic miscreants with the single exception of a 10 year old Minmatar boy, and he’s only sympathetic because he’s a former slave with a smashed-in larynx.
Tibus Heth, one of the main interests of the Caldari narrative, starts out strong. His motivations are complex and multifaceted. He could have played the part of an underdog resorting to shady methods to accomplish morally ambiguous goals. Instead, by the second half of the book he’s delegated to the role of a hateful demagogue of the Caldari people. So much more could have been done with him and his story. Instead, just as his story was about to turn really interesting, Tony Gonzales uses a personified plot device called The Broker just to make everything easier and all fixed up.
Don’t get me started on The Broker. The Broker robbed honest characters like Tibus Heth of so much potential and I was not at all impressed by a mysterious super powered plot device with spooky and unknown motivations. By this time The Broker’s motivations were made clear at the end of the book, I was downright angry that Tony Gonzales let him steal so much page time for something so profoundly dumb and pedestrian.
The rest of the characters are one sided and limp cardboard cutouts of proper human beings. The entire Minmatar cast is largely unbelievable and trite, and the portrayal of Jamyl Sarum and her lackeys play the part of blindly religious fanatics to caricature.
All the talk of characters aside, the actual writing was inconsistent. Writing styles themselves jumped from chapter to chapter, leaving the actual prose a muddled mess of disjointed narrative vision. One moment I swore I was reading a first person or limited third person perspective from one character, and the next moment I was reading some supremely distant third person omniscient perspective giving rough overviews of events as they happened. It was terribly disjointed, and made for an ultimately unpleasant read.
A couple days after reading The Empyrean Age I was out to dinner with a group of non EVE-playing friends. One of those friends brought the existence of this book to my attention shortly after I started playing EVE Online, and we can credit him as the reason I read the book in the first place. I made mention during the course of our dinner conversation that I had finished reading the book. He asked me an important question: was the book any good? The off-the-cuff answer that I gave him without any thought serves to seal my final verdict on the novel.
No. The book isn’t good.
I can only recommend this book to a certain subset of people. EVE players who want to learn more about the EVE universe could probably do worse than reading The Empyrean Age. People looking for an amazing piece of literature should look elsewhere, and readers looking for something entertaining might be hard pressed to find something here. EVE fans may find the book worthwhile, and the author does do a good job properly documenting where in the EVE universe events of the novel take place. Interested parties could probably retrace most the steps taken in the book.
It's available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle for those of you who are interested. Different people have given much more favorable reviews than me, but set expectations accordingly.