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For the Emperor
Christine Murphy
Hard Shell Word Factory, 244 pages

For the Emperor
Christine Murphy
Christine Murphy is a native of Minnesota and a graduate of Concordia College. After serving with the U.S. Navy in Florida, Iceland, and Virginia, she settled down in New England with her husband, three children, and a red Abyssinian cat. She divides her time between creative and technical writing. For the Emperor is her first published novel.

Hard Shell Word Factory

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Thomas Myer

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When I heard that Hard Shell Word Factory publishes electronic books, I didn't know what to expect when I received my copy of For the Emperor. I hoped it wouldn't be some choose-your-own-brainless-drama-wrapped-in-a-video-game, in which some badly hacked Java code converts user input into multi-threaded drivel accompanied by virtual rockettes.

Instead, I received a 3.5" disk in a cellophane-wrapped jacket containing an elegant RTF file, along with a typeset proof. The folks at Hard Shell Word Factory have given the issue of medium and packaging a lot of thought, obviously. RTF is nearly universal (not quite, but almost), so just about anyone with a modern word processor can read the novel on their screen. (Hard Shell also provides books in Adobe's PDF format, another very popular way of encapsulating information for on-screen viewing.) And because For the Emperor is a linear narrative (thank God!), there is no need for dizzy hypertext linking or pop-up animations and the like. Which, incidentally, makes it easy to print out and read on that most universal medium, paper.

So much for the wrapping, let's get to the contents.

The story behind For the Emperor is a solid one. What you have are two warring factions, the Triden Empire and the New Alliance, and stuck in between is a race of disinherited people known as the Imsada. Sort of a cross between Geronimo's freedom fighters of the Old West and the Afghani mujahedin.

The novel opens with Jameelah, an Imsada Legate, and Rami, a fellow freedom fighter, sneaking aboard a Triden Empire space station to disrupt the wedding of the newly crowned Triden Emperor. Jameelah is there to make a political statement with a harmless smoke bomb; Rami, on the other hand, wants to make a bloody statement, and without Jameelah's knowledge, plants a more lethal device in place of the smoke bomb. Jameelah hopes that because the new Triden Emperor is marrying the daughter of the most powerful man in the New Alliance, that a precisely-timed and executed political message will get the Imsada included in the upcoming peace negotiations. Rami only wants vengeance for five centuries of genocide, land-grabbing, and general viciousness.

Enter Alec, the brother of the current Triden Emperor, and one-time lover of his brother's bride. Before the bombing, he is Jameelah's dance partner; after the bombing, her hostage. Over the course of several days, she interrogates him, failing to learn anything of value about his identity. She does, however, learn more about him as a human being. As it turns out, Alec is more than just a military machine -- a killer -- as she first thought: musician, doctor, farmer. Slowly, she starts falling in love with her captive.

Just as the sexual tension starts building, the author ratchets up the intrigue. The treacherous Rami has sold Jameelah out to the New Alliance, who have standing orders to capture or kill her on sight -- it seems that the New Alliance doesn't take to agitators and rebels very kindly. But the author doesn't allow us to come away with one-dimensional characters: we also find out that Rami thinks Jameelah is too moderate; his vision is apocalyptic and unbendingly martial, the only rational way to strike back at his oppressors.

And then, before we get too weepy over Rami, we find out that he has taken Lorna -- Alec's sister, and therefore also Triden royalty -- hostage, and is using her genetic inheritance to carve out a future for himself, the Imsada be damned.

Alec must protect his identity as the Triden Emperor's brother, protect Jameelah from the New Alliance, and rescue his sister from a psychopath. And all the while, he and Jameelah are marooned in New Alliance space, dodging patrols and hard-nosed military types.

This book contains some delicious passages of sexual tension. The characters are well-drawn, and the plot skips along at a good pace. There is always a sense of something bigger: the fates of peoples, empires, and ways of life hover over the minds of characters fighting their own personal battles and bugbears.

Unfortunately, the novel also contains one too many instances of happenstance for my liking. In one scene, a contrived situation ("talk to me so I can stay awake to pilot through this asteroid belt") leads to more background information on local politics than anyone should ever have to slog through. And I sometimes found it hard to believe that anyone could ever take the brother and sister of the Emperor hostage and get away with it for the better part of a novel.

I don't know if electronic books will ever make it big. I have to admit that I stopped reading on screen after about three chapters and relied on the hard copy to get me through to the end. But there is good news: the story kept me interested, despite minor rough spots. And good stories will attract loyal readers... perhaps there is a big future in the medium.

Copyright © 1998 Thomas Myer

Thomas Myer works as a technical writer for Cisco Systems, Inc. He has recently picked up a new passion: mountain biking. He has written technical manuals, marketing brochures, theater reviews, book reviews, some passable essays, and a lot of very bad poetry. He also thinks SGML is pretty neat.


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