Review of Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Empire of the East by Fred SaberhagenEmpire of the East
by Fred Saberhagen, read by Raymond Todd
15 CD’s – 18.5 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks
Published: 2005
ISBN: 0786178833
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Technology / Demons / Empires / Post-Apocalypse

Have you ever wondered what one modern piece of weaponry might have meant for a given side in a war in past centuries? In the world Fred Saberhagen creates in Empire of the East, it is the future rather than the past where such scenarios are explored. In this distant future magic is real, understood, and trusted, while technology from the “old world” (i.e., our time) exists in the form of mistrusted relics.

You can’t listen to this story long without comparing it to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and it compares favorably. It’s a compilation (I believe with some revision) of three earlier books written by Saberhagen. The sheer breadth of the three-part story is impressive, sweeping you through a vast world where an oppressive Eastern empire is resisted by free men of the West. The main character Rolf resembles Frodo (even beyond the near-anagramatic match of names) and another reminds the reader of Aragorn.

But Saberhagen is no poor man’s Tolkien. He manages the micro- and macro-details with great skill. There are no Tom Bombadils dancing around, hinting of early ideas left in but not fully integrated. No disrespect for Lord of the Rings intended, I’m just saying that Empire of the East merits praise in its own right.

Saberhagen’s characters were believable and easy to care about. Lord Chup is my favorite character. Is he a good bad guy? A bad good guy? And making up for in evilness what they lack in nuance, the main antagonists are gripping. Lord Ekuman is evil, but he is easily outdone in the second book by Som the Dead (yes, he is as attractive as he sounds). Then, in the third book you realize Som is simply middle management. His boss (his mother named him Ominor, perhaps expecting the worst) likes to relax to the sounds of impalement.

The breadth of the milieu is matched by lush detail. I couldn’t help thinking of what a movie version of this would be like. Saberhagen describes situations and interactions with such precision that images came to mind as easily as if I’d watched it on a screen. The story aside, it was just fun listening to Saberhagen’s writing. He captures subtleties in the action, giving you the feeling like you know exactly what it would have been like to be there. Here is a random example of his writing:

As a man dragged to the edge of a precipice will throw away all his treasures and his weapons, to grab with every finger for some saving hold, so did the demon emperor now abandon all the threads of Eastern wizardry.

If you read fantasy, you often just accept that there happens to be magic in the world, and Saberhagen does a very good job explaining the magic of his world. The magic isn’t just part of the scenery, though. In a pleasant surprise at the end, just how the world came to have magic is explained and tied into the climax. There isn’t much of a denouement, perhaps the greatest contrast between Empire of the East and Lord of the Rings.

Even if a story is great, however, it does not necessarily translate to greatness when presented in other mediums. In this case, the audio production is equal to the story. Blackstone Audiobooks did a perfect job producing the Raymond Todd narration for Empire of the East. While a reader that does not distract from a story is desirable, Todd’s voice talent goes beyond and enhances it.

Some readers have interesting voices, but they soon become distracting, like a new shirt you don, but are soon irritated by when it doesn’t quite fit and rubs irritatingly against your skin. Raymond Todd’s voice, in contrast, is like a comfortable sweater that gives familiar reassurance. He uses variations of some kind of Gaelic or Scandinavian accent with the men of the West and did a great job with it.

So thank Blackstone Audiobooks for bringing us such a brilliant novel in a very impressive production. I’ll be keeping my eye out for other stories read by Raymond Todd.

If you don’t want to carry around a case with 15 CDs, you can get two MP3 CDs for just under fifty bucks, or do a digital download from their site for only $9.95 (if it’s your first time). I think anyone who appreciates his work will be glad this part of his legacy is preserved in this quality production.

Posted by Mike