Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen is the omnibus collection of a science fantasy novel. It is a rip-roaring adventure whose best parts are hard to describe without giving spoilers. Though unlikely to appeal to those who don’t like Fantasy or Science Fiction, this book is a truly fun novel that added a unique twist to the entire speculative fiction genre at the time of its first publication. My best recommendation for those who might be interested is not to read the jacket cover, nor any descriptions of the text since almost everything out there that describes the work reveals the best element of it – discovering the Saberhagen’s world through reading about it.
A Cold War analogy world, with magic, demons, monsters and more, where free people live in the western part of a large continent, and a cruel empire commands the Eastern part. The world is populated by wizards, intelligent birds, wyvern-like speaking reptiles, and demons with vast powers. It would be very easy to give more description, and almost anywhere you look you will find it, but I think going into greater detail will destroy the greatest pleasure of reading this book, which was the revelations that come as you read it.
Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen were a truly innovative series of books when they were written. Best known for his Beserker series, Saberhagen went in a totally different direction when he published The Broken Lands, the first installment of this series, in 1968. The subsequent two novels are collected together in this omnibus novel. Since that time others have written stories set in similar fantasy worlds, and indeed there were probably similar ideas that predate that book, but few did it as well or as comprehensively as Saberhagen. What is more, unlike the sequel series The Books of Swords and The Books of Lost Swords, this series ends quite nicely at the conclusion of Ardneh’s World the last installment in the omnibus.
In brief, with no spoilers (which is really hard when trying to discuss the cool bits of the tale and get you to read it), the tale is the story of Rolf, a peasant farmer in a sword-and-sorcery land conquered by the titular Empire less than a generation before the opening of the tale. He dislikes the Empire, which is cruel by anyone’s standards, but turns to rebellion only when his home is destroyed and his sister is kidnapped at the opening of the tale. Soon, Rolf joins the resistance and fights a guerilla war against the powerful invaders.
To this end, this really is a story about a rebellion and is in many ways falls into the MilFic genre. Only, because it takes place in a society without a military superstructure (albeit fighting one that has a professional military, albeit medieval in form), it does not really fall into my definition of Military Science Fiction, which, after all, is about life in the Military, not just stories about war. Even so, it IS a story about a military struggle against an occupying military overlord, so it does somewhat fall into that genre. Of course, so then does Star Wars which is really not MilFic regardless of how many people have ranks (that seem to be completely ignored throughout the tale).
Working with the rebels, Rolf finds that they are aided by Ardneh, a strange powerful force that no one has actually seen. It sends visions, lend aid and seems godlike in its powers, but is mysterious in its nature with even its gender undisclosed. Yet Ardneh fights the vastly powerful demons that are controlled (or not so controlled) by the forces of the Empire.
Indeed, one of the elements I can speak about that won’t destroy the joy of reading this book are the details that fill the background of this book, and make the world seem so realistic. A perfect example can be found in the demons he describes. Unlike most fantasy novels of the period (or now for that matter), the demons that haunt his world are beings that match those of myth and religion in a way that most demons in most fantasy stories do not.
Normally, demons in modern fantasy are presented in a manner that make them basically big, powerful, magic using monsters – more akin to Tolkien’s Balrogs or, even the Titans of Greek Myth than to the demons of the Bible, or raksasha of Hindu tales. In contrast Saberhagen presents demons in a more traditional, and frightening form: non-corporeal beings of magic, that take form to influence the world, but can change and drop that form as need be; each being difficult, if not impossible to defeat, if one does not know their individual secret. What is more, when he describes the passing of a demon, particularly in its less corporeal form, it is enough to drive men out of their wits. As such, Saberhagen’s demons come across as far more horrifying than the big physical brutes of most High Fantasy. This is true of his other magical beasts as well, and indeed, all of the logic which he puts into the world he created.
Beyond his world building, the story itself is a classic “boy to hero” tale that follows in the well trodden path of most fantasy stories of the period. It makes a rip-roaring adventure tale, but one that by itself would hardly stand out from the crowd. What DOES makes this book worth seeking out are the reveals of the world itself. I highly recommend this as a book for anyone who likes Sword-and-sorcery tales…. But really, don’t read too much about it or else it will be spoiled.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
Raymond Todd did a very good job of narrating the Blackstone Audio version of this book, but there were a few odd editing bits that detract from the production. These could have been either due to the digitizing of the CDs that I heard the story on, but I suspect it was to the recording.
 Which I will get around to reviewing once I can find a readable copy of the first book to re-read. My own copy’s spine broke years ago and is missing about half the pages…. Ah… youth.
 Which is really the same length as almost any epic fantasy or epic sci fi story even when all collected together. Saberhagen is a master of writing short novels with solid backgrounds and high adventure throughout.
 OK, to be fair, The Books of Swords ends at the conclusion of the third of the series, but as that I read it knowing there was a The Books of Lost Swords afterwards, I felt the need to go and, and THAT series ran for eight installments. Don’t get me started with the Beserker series. 14 volumes?
 OK… again, I understand that in 2006 Ardneh’s Sword was written, but I haven’t read it and it wasn’t in the collected Audiobook I listened to. At the end of The Empire of the East omnibus I read and am reviewing, the story came to a very neat end.
 Uh, oh… another Problems with Military Science Fiction article, huh?
 And indeed most myths, legends and literature. Joseph Campbell would be proud.
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