Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda BellezaEmpress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda BellezaEmpress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza

Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza is a YA space opera that feels a bit like old-time science fiction with a modern sensibility, in that characterization takes a back seat to a plot that can’t really be examined too closely, but those relatively flat characters are a nicely diverse mix in terms of gender and color. Sometimes such a propulsive plot can compensate for, or at least ameliorate somewhat, flat characters, but the plot also had its issues, and so the book didn’t succeed for me, though YA readers may be a bit more forgiving, particularly younger ones.

Years ago, Crown Princess Rhiannon’s father, mother, and sister died in an “accident” that led to her growing up in exiled protection while the galaxy was ruled by Regent Seotra. The book opens up as Rhee, as she’s called, is about to return home for her coming-of-age birthday and come into her title as Empress. Rhee looks forward to that moment not for the power, but so she can finally face and kill the Regent, whom she believes killed her family. Her plans go quickly awry however, and soon she is forced to seek vengeance under wholly unexpected circumstances. Meanwhile, Aly, a young war refugee now in the space navy, finds himself accused of murdering the Crown Princess, and he is soon on the run as he tries to find a way to clear his name before the galaxy finishes the war that Rhee’s father had ended just before his death with an unpopular peace treaty.

To begin with the positives, Empress of a Thousand Skies doesn’t shy away from dealing with some big issues. Bigotry, for instance, is one of the book’s major themes, as Aly is a member of a planetary species that is looked down upon to varying degrees by the dominant species/race, with his people referred to as “savages.” A side character is also treated with disdain, and brief mention is made of similar bigotry regarding other species/races. Other topics touched upon include the use of propaganda, the ease of scapegoating “the other” via demagoguery, religious bigotry, treatment of refugees, and the costs of war, both short term and long term. I did wish some of these treatments had been dealt with at more length, but at least they are here, and if they sometimes get dropped a bit quickly, their inherent complexities aren’t wholly glossed over. The characters themselves are likable enough. And the plot, as noted, is pretty fast-paced, with lots of life-or-death moments and several nicely unexpected turns. The prose is serviceable, if a bit simple.

As for the problems: While the plot is fast-paced, it relies way too much on coincidence, with implausible meetings, etc. driving multiple plot points. Nor does having a character point out the coincidence erase the flaw. The plotting is also marred by the reliance, at times, on people doing some pretty dumb and/or implausible things. The ending feels rushed, both in its plotting and its writing, leaving to a closing narrative that is both chaotic and muddy. The worldbuilding is quite thin, with little sense of how this empire works. Characters, while likable, are more than a little flat, especially the side characters. Nice twists and other plot events are easily spotted in advance (and should be by some of the characters).

Empress of a Thousand Skies is just the first book in the story and, as such, doesn’t resolve much. I would expect some improvement from book one to two, seeing as this is a debut novel, but it would need to be a pretty big jump for me to recommend starting the series at this point.

Published February 7, 2017. For fans of Pierce Brown and Firefly comes an epic sci-fi fantasy that Kiersten White, author of And I Darken, calls “dazzling–an adventure as sweeping in scope as the galaxies it spans!” Empress. Rhee, also known as Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty. She’ll stop at nothing to avenge her family and claim her throne. Fugitive. Aly has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. But when he’s falsely accused of killing Rhee, he’s forced to prove his innocence to save his reputation – and his life. Madman. With planets on the brink of war, Rhee and Aly are thrown together to confront a ruthless evil that threatens the fate of the entire galaxy. Rhoda Belleza crafts a powerful saga of vengeance, warfare, and the true meaning of legacy in this exhilarating debut, perfect for readers of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s Illuminae Files.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.