The novel is set on the planet Darkath, the most remote colony world in the Federation. As planets go, Darkath is barely a step up from Arrakis (‘Empire’s Horizon’ borrows heavily from ‘Dune’). The unstable planetary geology means that there are minor earthquakes every few hours; daytime temperatures reach 120 degrees F; the arid climate means that stunted bushes are the only greenery; sand gets into everything; a glass of clean water is exorbitantly expensive; and the close proximity of Darkath's sun, Alaikhaj, means that exposing unprotected skin to its rays brings painful, blistering sunburns.
As ‘Empire’s Horizon’ opens, Martin Cain, a reporter, arrives aboard the once-yearly transport ship at the capital of Darkath, a rundown, squalid collection of encampments clustered around the planet’s sole spaceport. Cain has come to Darkath in the hopes of shaking off a deep depression by immersing himself in exotic, even threatening, surroundings.
He soon discovers that the relationship between the Darkani (the natives of Darkath – a desert-adapted subspecies of Homo sapiens ) – and the Colonial Administration is quite strained. A coalition of the main ethnic groups on Darkath, led by the charismatic priestess Hara, is planning an armed rebellion against the Federation authorities. The Military Governor of Darkath, a distressed, middle-aged officer named Manuel Jimenez, can ill afford to battle an uprising, as Darkath’s remoteness means that any Federation reinforcements will be a year in arriving.
Against his will, Martin Cain finds himself caught up in the coming conflict between the natives and the Federation administration. But other factors are at play in the heat-blasted deserts and titanic rock formations outside the boundaries of the city……rumors of a temple constructed from a kilometer-tall needle of rock, within which is a mystical artifact of great power; rumors about the hulks of long-abandoned spaceships buried under the sand, ships that may have been those carrying the first settlers to Darkath centuries ago; and rumors about the presence of what may be a fleet of spaceships of unknown origin, stationed off the dark side of Darkath’s moon.
For Martin Cain, uncovering the truth behind these rumors will not be easy…..but if a brutal war of liberation is to be avoided, he will have no other choice……
I had mixed feelings upon finishing ‘Empire’s Horizon’. It belongs to the sub-category of sf in which an open-minded Terran finds himself immersed in a strange and exotic alien culture, and through various circumstances, becomes the unwilling but vital mediator of conflict between Terran and Alien. This type of plot is not unusual, having been heavily mined by C. J. Cherryh, among others.
The problem with ‘Empire’s Horizon’ is that the first half of the book is quite static, as the narrative is preoccupied with world-building, including introducing the large cast of characters, and setting into motion myriad plots and sub-plots. For example, I found the lengthy sections of the narrative that are devoted to examining the existential angst that has driven Martin Cain to Darkath, to be quite boring.
The requisite passages of world-building also take a toll, as the reader is introduced into the North-African-influenced culture of the Darkani; this is accomplished through laborious expositions on the ethnic rivalries, social mores, and (vaguely Islamic) religious beliefs of the native population.
The second half of the novel is more interesting, as the rebellion gets underway and the various plot threads begin to coalesce. But here the novel continues to suffer from a lack of focus; an overwrought sub-plot, involving the advent of a ‘Cosmic Awareness’ linked to Darkani religious beliefs, distracts from the main narrative, which is at heart an adventure story modeled on the 19th century colonial conflicts between Europeans and North Africans.
The verdict ? Despite being written in 1989, ‘Empire’s Horizon’ has very much the deliberate, overwritten character of those sf novels of the 1970s and early 1980s devoted to dramatizing the sociology, psychological, and political aspects of an alien culture (think, for example, of M. A. Foster’s ‘ler’ novels). If that sub-genre of sf appeals to you, then you may find ‘Empire’s Horizon’ worthwhile. Otherwise, however, this novel can be passed by.