I wish oh, how I wish I could say that Scott's Silence Leigh trilogy ends on its highest possible note. While The Empress of Earth does at long last offer the long-awaited payoff of the journey to Earth, that payoff may disappoint some readers. Some tedious and labored writing and a surprisingly conventional approach to space opera kept me from appreciating the book as well as I did its two prequels, particularly the rousing Silence in Solitude. The appeal of Scott's trio of lead characters is still solid. Readers who've made it this far will want to know Silence's destiny. And it's precisely that sort of character appeal that carries you over the novel's lulls.
Having finally won from the Satrap of Inarime, now the new Hegemon, the right to use his ancient portolan guide to find the long-lost star roads back to mother Earth, Silence Leigh and her two husbands Denis Balthasar and Chase Mago prepare to get underway. But a new condition has been added by the Hegemon. Princess Aili is the Hegemon's only legitimate child, and he needs a male heir to inherit the throne in order to shore up his own shaky rule, won in combat (and with Silence's help at that). So he has made a deal with other noble families in the Hegemony that the throne will pass to whomever either discovers the roads to Earth, or sponsors such a journey. It's a deal he knows he cannot lose, and he has named his eldest legitimate son as sponsor of Silence's upcoming journey. Silence and crew have no choice but to accept the sponsorship.
This wouldn't be such a big deal were it not for one wild card: Aili, who quite reasonably thinks she should inherit the throne, despite the Hegemony's innate cultural misogyny. Much to the shock of Silence and Chase, Denis sneaks Aili aboard their ship prior to getting underway, along with her husband, Colonel Marcinik. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
The roads to Earth have been blocked by a federation of planets called the Rose Worlds, using vast siege engines that mess up the harmonics central to the Magi's Art. Remember, Scott has invented an elaborate and imaginative metaphysical system of starflight. And though she has incorporated it into her stories in such a way that one can easily suspend disbelief (unless one is a strident hard-science purist, that is), Scott still feels the need to oversell it. Scenes depicting Silence piloting in which Scott goes into excruciating detail infodumping extremely obscure magical symbology make for some of dull, interminable reading. I'd swear I probably qualify for Medicaid after slogging through chapter three. It simply isn't necessary for Scott to bury us under this much often-incomprehensible minutiae in order for us to believe the Art. It's doubly unnecessary if she wants her story to have exciting forward momentum, something I would argue is crucial to space opera. After all, in Star Trek, it was sufficient to invent "dilithium crystals" as the source of the Enterprise's fuel. They didn't need to detail every single chemical and molecular process that took place within the ship's engines. Just get our heroes to the freakin' planet already!
Anyway, after much prolixity, Silence finds the path to Earth. But it soon becomes clear the Rose Worlds have been onto them from the start and they've run into a trap. The story becomes far more interesting at this point. And it's high time, because we're halfway through the book. Forced to crash-land, Silence and crew must figure out not only how to escape, but also exactly what it is the Rose Worlders are up to, and why they have blocked access to Earth. And can this blockade be broken?
There's no denying Melissa Scott is a storyteller who respects her readers' intelligence, even if it means she writes with a heavy hand sometimes. She isn't for all tastes, but readers who don't mind a novel that takes its time will be more receptive to her style. I'll admit I'm going to miss Silence Leigh and her friends, and if Scott should ever choose to revisit them and bring us up to date on their further adventures, I'll be one of the first in line.