Nick Cole and Jason Anspach set themselves a series of difficult challenges with their latest release in the sprawling Galaxy’s Edge universe. The novel Imperator rips off the mask of the chief antagonist of the universe by telling his story largely in his own words. In telling his tale, it also pulls back the curtain on a lot of the Galaxy’s Edge history. Both of which make this a satisfying read for long-time fans and for newcomers to the series. It also makes a review of this work difficult, because it’s hard to know how a potential reader might come across this story. Since this is a review and not a mystery, let’s ruin the ending right now.
It doesn’t matter how you come into Imperator. It’s a great read full of action and pathos and dread and fun sci-fi head games. The only mark against the book, it’s overall dark and brooding atmosphere, comes with the territory. This is the origin story of a villain, Goth Sullus, who conquers a galaxy using every dirty trick in the book – it’s not meant to be a light-hearted romp. It’s a look at the darker side of the Galaxy’s Edge universe, and let’s face it, even the bright side of this setting isn’t particularly upbeat.It’s also much more complicated than the earlier works. Imperator bounces around. A lot. It isn’t a straight-ahead story, but several stories that weave together. The main thrust of the tale pauses while the protagonist relates a bit of his backstory, or we get a glimpse of the ramifications of a decision made in the here and now. As if that’s not enough, a late-story time-travel subplot ties the whole thing together while adding even more temporal madness into the mix. It’s an oddly fractal way to tell a story, and it takes a bit of adjustment after the more linear early books.
Which brings us back to Imperator, which manages to fit itself seamlessly into the Galaxy’s Edge puzzle even as it stands alone as a one-off story. But that’s not the only neat trick it manages. A lot of the menace of a good dark lord comes from his mysteriousness. Authors who reveal too much about them run the risk of failing to live up to the reader’s imaginations. Anspach and Cole manage to slowly build up Goth Sullus in such a way that learning where he comes from only adds to his mystique – they leave enough of his history implied but unspoken to show the reader what a powerful force the man is without revealing too much. Better yet, the source of his powers is shown to be at once completely understandable and so utterly alien that it nearly defies description. Even better, that source proves to be an even bigger threat to the galaxy than Goth Sullus himself.
Which is really saying something.
And it provides an excuse to point out that Anspach and Cole also make Sullus much more sympathetic without turning him into a poor, misunderstood hero. He’s still a bad guy who does bad things for bad reasons, but at the end of the day, it’s clear that however noble his stated intentions might be, he has signed on fully to the ends justifying the means. And over the course of Imperator his means include the sort of barbaric brutality that will always mark him as a villain – lesser threat to the galaxy or not.
And in that way, Imperator is a sort of microcosm of everything that makes Galaxy’s Edge work. What you need to understand about Galaxy’s Edge is that it was written from the ground up as a sprawling epic, and Anspach and Cole have built into the series a number of doorways through which readers can enter. Unlike most sprawling epics, you don’t have to start at book one and slog though the volumes in numerical order for the story to make sense. Because Galaxy’s Edge isn’t one story – it’s a series of stories that interlock in some fun and interesting ways. Hints and clues abound in every book, as do plain spoken explanations, and they all point back around at each other, so that the reader can follow along with the story he is immersed in right now. Even if the action leaves a lot of unanswered questions, those questions can all wait until you get around to the other novels.
For example, the name “Maydoon” is important. A reader who starts with Imperator will recognize that name when it first crops up in Galactic Outlaws and pay a little closer attention to the character bearing that name. On the other hand, when that name pops up in Imperator, it’s a laugh-out-loud moment for old hands, even as it doesn’t have any real bearing on the plot of Imperator. It’s the kind of reference that Hollywood has come to rely on, but in this series the references carry far more weight as they accumulate to paint a much deeper and more cohesive universe than any one straight ahead narrative could convey. Likewise, a patch worn by the bounty hunter Tyrus Rechs, provides either a clue as to the galaxy’s origin or a nice callback. Which, depends on whether or not you’ve read Imperator or Galactic Outlaws first.
Unfortunately, there is no right answer to the question of where to start. Rather, where to start depends on what your comfort level is as a reader.
If you want to know what’s really going on straight out of the gate, then Imperator is the one for you. It explains how the galaxy developed, the important conflicts that shaped the ‘present’ state of the universe, and how the superhuman characters earned their powers and cool toys. It takes some of the mystery out of the other books, but helps ground the reader in the dumpster galaxy before the fire really gets out of hand. It also heavily features space-wizardry if that’s your bag – the rest of the novels are much lighter on that score.
If you don’t care about backstory and intricate settings and politics, and just want to get to the blood and guts of a military unit cut off from help and fighting its way across a blasted desert world, then Legionnaire is the one for you. Of all the novels, it has the least in the way of characterizations. With few exceptions, the characters are special forces badasses, and that’s all a military sci-fi action novel needs.
If you prefer some backstory and intricate settings and want to read several plotlines woven together and intersecting in an adventure than spans multiple planets, and one in which you are never really sure who the good guys are, then it’s safe to read Galactic Outlaws and Kill Team first, and then go back and read Legionnaire and Imperator later. Your experience will be different, but your enjoyment will not be reduced in any way.
Of the first four books in my own collection (Legionnaire, Galactic Outlaws, Kill Team, and Imperator), the only one that wouldn’t make for a decent entry point is Kill Team, which really needs to be read after Legionnaire, but not necessarily immediately afterwards. And of course, for the completists and those who love solving mysteries or re-reading works for deeper appreciation of the material, re-reads are highly recommended to find those little moments that you thought were throw-away and turned out to be so much more.