Book Review: Rhoda Bellaza’s Empress of a Thousand Skies

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In this universe, two people reign supreme: Crown princess Rhiannon Ta’an, sole surviver of the ancient Kalusian dynasty, has the minds and loyalty of her people while Alyosha, a war refugee turned DroneVision show star, has the hearts and eyes of the people. When an assassination attempt before her coronation goes wrong, Rhee barely escapes and Aly, miles away, is blamed for her presumed murder. Suddenly, a galaxy apart but seeking the same answers, Rhee and Aly are on the run. The beginning of a saga with space-opera proportions, Rhoda Belleza’s debut, Empress of a Thousand Skies, jettisons readers across galaxies, into horror-laced plots, and through vengeance, violence, loss, legacy, and hope.

Belleza’s debut is the start of promising world (I mean, ahem, universe) building that promises to span across stars, planets, places, and diverse identities. As Kiersten White asserts, Empress of a Thousand Skies is “dazzling — an adventure as sweeping in scope as the galaxies it spans!” And it spans — and represents — a lot! Unlike many science-fiction epics, those planets in Rhee’s galaxy are diverse, fascinating, and, like in the real world, flawed. The premise of Empress of a Thousand Skies follows after years of devastating war and a refugee crisis that destroyed both Aly and Rhee’s families. Much of Aly’s experiences, then, are timely for a 2017 debut and put us in the shoes of a refugee child and survivor while Rhee’s experiences show the political and monarchical side of the conflict.

Though it’s somewhat up to readerly interpretation, both of Belleza’s main characters seem to be people of color, solidifying their worlds’ diversity. Rhee is portrayed as a character with Asian characteristics and appearance while Aly is a dark-skinned Wraetan, suggesting either black or south Asian. (Personally, I envisioned Aly as John Boyega and had an absolute blast because who wouldn’t do literally anything for John Boyega?) Her body and racial identity is revered while his is stigmatized and marked as untrustworthy, dangerous, with its refugee associations — yet again, a timely portrayal. Even though this sci-fi world has no Earth equivalent and therefore no language to assert Asian/African/black identity, Belleza does an amazing job of describing and identifying her main characters as well as introducing a diverse cast of characters (including aliens!) to accentuate political, racial, and interpersonal tensions throughout Empress of a Thousand Skies.

Unexpectedly, and contrary to the book’s official synopsis — “Bound together by an evil that only they can stop, the two fugitives must join forces to save the galaxy” —, Rhee and Aly never meet or join forces throughout the course of the book. Instead, they each have their own respective allies in their race against evil plots and time. Because of this, the plot is conveyed via alternating points of view that switch chapter by chapter. This allows us to get to know Aly and Rhee, their psyches, their fears, their heartaches, their conflicts, and also shares information each collects on their own that we wouldn’t know otherwise. On the other hand, as conflict escalates, the transition between the two points of view tends to get choppier, faster, and sometimes the passage of time gets confusing. Despite this, Rhee and Aly each get their own individual voice in their chapters and relate their experiences in distinct ways.

Empress of a Thousand Skies gestures to a sequel but reads as a book full to bursting with build-up. The climax really comes to the fore in the final chapters and, in the case of one of Aly’s discoveries, is not at all resolved. This, despite how it’s stated, is not a criticism: This is merely a forewarning to potential readers that Empress does not hit Star Wars-level epic in the plot of this book until very near the end. The characters are sleuthing and laying low as best they can (except when they’re not, I add, glancing meaningfully at Rhee, hot-headed feistiness extraordinaire) — more spy movie, then, than rebellious space epic to start. The first installment in Belleza’s series is more setting the scene for an upcoming rebellion to take back the Kalusian throne from an unexpected usurper so it’s less action-packed than its sequels promise to be.

While I bought Empress of a Thousand Skies mainly for its cover (look at it!!), this young adult science-fiction novel’s diverse characters, expansive galaxy, and penchant for political plots, secrets, and treachery swept me far, far away. The dangers, adventures, and strange alliances that Rhee and Aly face over the course of Belleza’s debut strip the two runaways to their very bones, fears, and worries until we know their vengeance, hearts, and qualms as our own. Much of the conflict in Empress of a Thousand Skies is extremely timely for 2017 — refugee crises, political turmoil, foreign wars, belligerent racism, xenophobic policies, an unexpected dictatorial usurper (“I own everything and everyone. I’ve been planning…, picking and choosing my allies, building a loyal army of followers”), and a cultural obsession with pleasure-inducing, memory-holding technology — and will perhaps even allow teen readers to consider and react to real-world problems via this fictional portrayal. In opening Belleza’s Empress of a Thousand Skies, you meet a vengeful princess and an underdog refugee-turned-star who each whisk you away on an adventure that spans stars, quadrants, and galaxies.

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