📑 Review: Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza
"Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta'an wants vengeance.The only surviving heir to an ancient Kalusian dynasty, Rhee has spent her life training to destroy the people who killed her family. Now, on the eve of her coronation, the time has finally come for Rhee to claim her throne - and her revenge.
Alyosha is a Wraetan who has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. Despite his popularity, Aly struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and the pressure of being perfect in the public eye.
Their paths collide with one brutal act of violence: Rhee is attacked, barely escaping with her life. Aly is blamed for her presumed murder.
The princess and her accused killer are forced to go into hiding - even as a war between planets is waged in Rhee's name. But soon, Rhee and Aly discover that the assassination attempt is just one part of a sinister plot. Bound together by an evil that only they can stop, the two fugitives must join forces to save the galaxy.." - From Goodreads
Assigning the phrase 'space opera' to anything used to be something negative, the term usually implying that the work you're experiencing (be it film, literary, or otherwise) was simply a soap opera set in space. Think: melodrama, evil twins, romance, long-lost relatives or loved ones back from the dead.
But , at least in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with a little melodrama in space, as long as that melodrama is accompanied by an intriguing plot and is able to escape the formulaic nature that's been imposed on it by offering me something new and surprising within its genre. Have your drama, romance, subterfuge, but temper it with something more and I will be on that ship suspending my disbelief in your pseudo-science and fake alien races like its my job.
And, to my utmost happiness, Empress of a Thousand Skies does just that. At it's core, the first in this series by Rhoda Belleza can be described as a space opera with court intrigue and a little bit of social commentary mixed in. But it's more than that. The parallels between very real issues that we are facing today and several plot threads in the novel are obvious. From the cubes (devices that, among other things: collect, store, and archive memories that can be recalled at any time) being an extreme stand in for people's reliance on their phones and recording every moment to the racial tensions between the planets (Kula's view/feeling of superiority over Waeretans), it's not hard to see the issues and conflicts we face on a daily basis in this work of science fiction.
True, sometimes the similarities, the commentary was almost aggresively in your face, but for the most part it did what all good art should do, regardless of how 'out of this world' (see what i did there?): reflect/mirror reality (says the one that wants to escape into fantasy novels, ironic I know).
One of the two main factors that I thought perfectly reflected modern day? The 'cubes' almost all citizens have implanted in them. Belleza makes it a point to showcase how the characters are so reliant on the cubes they keep them on, always. How turning the cubes off, disconnecting, especially for long time affects them emotionally and physically. There's a feeling of loss, withdrawal . People rarely access memories organically so that if they do come unbidden its destabilizing, especially memories that they try to keep buried.
There's also the 'security' issues that are mentioned time and time again and work to move the plot on several occasions. The cubes, technically, shouldn't be accessed with permission from the owner. It is, after all basically their brain. But, as all governments are wont to do, there is technology that can override the security put in place and not only allow people to view people's memories, but take them, overwrite them. Leave them brain-damaged and suffering from delusions. Now, I don't think our tech has gotten this advanced yet but still...
I should talk about the characters and/or the plot shouldn't I?
Rhee, one of our protagonists, has been compared to Arya Stark in terms of her thirst for revenge. Instead of a long list of names, she has just one. Despite the similarities between her and Arya (who is my girl), Rhee actually grated on my nerves at the beginning. I am not sure if it's because I am getting older (/sigh) or something else, but I found myself wanting to shake some sense into her. True, she had been trained to fight and was going to be crowned queen of the planet, but she had no concrete way to execute her revenge. It was simply 'kill this person,' as if simply getting close to someone is all it takes to kill them.
But, she's a child. She's a child suffering from survivors guilt having lost her whole family. And she grows, she adapts, she learns. Rhee ends up realizing that not everything is as it seems, and sometimes anger and pain can cloud your judgement so much so that you're blind to the reality around you.
Then there's Aly. A former war-refugee turned reality show star trying to prove to a world convinced of his people's tendencies towards violence that the colour of his skin does not imply certain behaviors... even when he is later framed for a murder he did not commit, a perfect scapegoat for people with pre-existing prejudices.
The main plot of "Empress' is not new, unless you've never read 'princess trying to take back her throne' plots, which, if that's the case, you clearly haven't been reading fantasy novels. But, even with the predictability the plot managed to twist in ways I wasn't expecting at times. You know what also made me almost sigh in relief? One way that it upended expectations of Young Adult novels? The very very very limited romance.
The book wasn't perfect, very few are. In terms of pacing, a lot less time passes than it's made to feel. You get to over halfway through the book and realize that only a week has passed since Aly has been framed, despite some of the writing making it seem like more time has passed. World-building sometimes feels too-flimsy, it takes some time to figure out the characteristics of different alien races (what they look like, their behaviour) and the planets themselves.
But overall? You won't find many Young Adult science fiction novels that deal so clearly and are so on-point when it comes to discussing racism, diversity, and technology. If you do, please send them my way. If you take everything that's happening in the world today, racism and tech reliance and war mongering, and set it in an indeterminate future and in space, you'll get Empress of a Thousand Skies. And in my opinion it's a good thing to get.
(Some) Memorable Quotes:
If all we are is what people think we are, then we’re all screwed.
In the real world, they told you who to be, not the other way around.
People always measured war in terms of the numbers dead. Maybe they should measure it in terms of the people left behind.
Cubes were protected. They contained people's impressions, memories, thoughts, dreams. [...] But hacking into someone else's cube, even stealing the hardware after they died, was indecent, evil---like a violent, twisted kind of murder. In any culture on any planet, everyone was in agreement.
If anyone has read Empress of a Thousand Skies let us know what you think in the comments below! Comments also open to further book/movie/show recommendations, anything you’d like to see reviewed, or general feedback. We’d love to hear what you have to say!