Review: Hidden Empire by Kevin J. Anderson (audiobook)

Having discussed with friends their horrific experiences with some of the Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert Dune sequels, and discussing with other friends their animosity over Anderson’s Star Wars books I decided that I should give Anderson’s long running Saga of the Seven Suns a try. While I have yet to read any of the Dune sequels myself, and have only hazy memories of Kyp Durron and the Jedi Academy books I was none the less a bit concerned about what was in store for me here.

What I found was an impressive space opera full of mystery, action, suspense, populated by interesting characters and set in a truly epic scale. Hidden Empire displays some quality writing far more exciting and interesting than anything I remember from the Star Wars books I vaguely remember. That isn’t to say that the story isn’t without its problems but what problems there are exist more as a result of format and ambition rather than a lack of skillful writing.

Let me start with the major problem and the one that might make this book a little less accessible to the greater reading population: the cast. The cast is fricking huge. As a result from the outset you spend so little time with the diverse characters in the beginning of the novel that any sort of connection between the various character’s plots doesn’t become readily obvious until about halfway through the book. As a corollary the the chapter to chapter switches between each point of view don’t really let you build any kind of quick emotional attachment to any of the characters at the outset of the novel and it is only towards the end of the book (I’d say about the final third or so) that you ever feel really attached to any of them.

On the other hand Anderson does a fantastic job of giving each of their characters their own voice (aided by George Guidall’s solid narration).  From the youthful anger of Tasia, to the optimism of Nera, to the arrogance of the Mage Imperium there is refreshing amount a originality and individuality amongst the massive cast.  My personal favorites included Raymond Aguerra, and Margaret Colickoss.  It’s hard to go into specifics without verging into spoiler territory but Aguerra’s story featured some of the best political aspects of the story while Colickoss’ sections revealed an impressive level of world building involved in the history of the Seven Suns universe.

Now, the worst for last, there was a major weak point in the plot that I feel obligated to mention.  The early chapters of the novel show humans using an alien technology to ignite a gas giant into a full fledged world in order to thaw out moons to use as habitable colonies.  Immediatley after the planet ingnites multiple characters notice several spheres fly out of the now burning gas giant.  Later in the novel, when aliens start showing up on other gas giants to destroy and murder humans mining the atmosphere there I find the confusion over why the aliens are attacking to be very close to unbelievable; especially for the human leadership.   You lit a gas giant on fire.  Aliens fly out of gas giant to wreck shit up some time after.  Is the logistical leap not obvious?

Regardless I still enjoyed the listen and would recommend it to others, either in audio or print, despite its flaws.  While Hidden Empire doesn’t do anything particularly new Anderson did manage to create an interesting and deep setting to play out action, adventure, mystery, and drama on a grand scale.  While it lacks the intimacy of a more focused narrative the cinematic flair and enormous scope of Anderson’s story manage to draw you in and keep you reading (or listening).

The series is complete at seven books and it looks like most, if not all, are available in both audio and print.  Books 1, 2 and 3 are available from Recorded Books/Random House Audio while 4 through 7 are available from Brilliance.  The change in audio publisher means that George Guidall only narrates books 1 through 3 and I can’t stress just how much his performance adds to the book but I can’t imagine many other narrators living up to the quality of work heard here.

Apparently literary skills aren’t genetic

Frank Herbert is essentially a god in the realm of science fiction (he wrote the original two Dune trilogies, for those not in the know). Basically if you were to rate him on a science fiction scale from 1 to “Frank Herbert”, he would get a “Frank Herbert”. Or possibly just a little less than “Frank Herbert” if you’re one of those tools who thinks nothing should ever get a perfect score because “no book/movie/game/CD is perfect”. Regardless, he would be really close to the top of whatever arbitrary scale you can make up to rate writers in the genre. Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, on the other hand…not so much. Brian is, however, a very wealthy man because Brian and his buddy Kevin Anderson managed to pump out multiple books sporting DUNE in big letters on their covers. These books are mediocre in good light but are national bestsellers because Dune has a ridiculous amount of selling power even 40+ years after the first book’s release.

This situation basically means one of two things about Brian Herbert:

1) Brian honestly believes his penmanship is equal to that of Frank Herbert and that his books live up to the legacy of the original series. He has some sort of Oedipus complex that causes him to devalue his father’s work. Brian isn’t the brightest bulb in the drawer and is possibly illiterate.

2) Brian knows his writing style is sub par. He continues to pump out the Dune books because they mean he gets to sleep on a bed made entirely of Euros and eat condor egg omelets three times a day. Brian may be the brightest bulb in the drawer but he is a bulb of pure evil.

I suspect the latter. I know Frank Herbert wouldn’t care for the shallow characters and nonsensical motives that populate his son’s novels. And I’m sure Brian Herbert does too.