Review: The God Engines by John Scalzi

This 2009 short novel by science fiction writer John Scalzi does a fair job of blurring genre lines. It’s about space ships and a galactic empire! But it’s also about living gods, faith, magic, and monsters.

As a short book, the story gets in and out quickly, focusing on its Big Idea more than its characters and world-building. But it’s a pretty good Idea. 

What’s it about?

So. There’s a galactic empire, which serves a particular god (the best god! the strongest god!), and they are fighting an endless war against all the followers of all the other gods in the universe. (No word on whether these “gods” are really gods or just god-like aliens.) 

The starships are powered entirely by the captured “lesser” gods that each ship has chained up in its “engine” room. The crew is defined by their faith and spiritual talents, using holy powers from their imperial god as well as the captive god to navigate, communicate, and otherwise function in space. Our hero, the captain of such a ship, is given a secret mission to win the ongoing war. They’re going to convert some heathens and thus power up the empire (and their god) with some band new, totally fresh, first-tier Faith.

Except it goes wrong, of course. I won’t spoil it.

The big reveal is the true history of the universe: Why is the imperial god winning against all these other gods? What was humanity like before they encountered any of these gods? The answers may not shock or surprise you, but I think the setup feels pretty fresh.

What’s the big deal?

This is a small book that just serves up its Big Idea and then leaves you to think about it. It’s a quick read. If you don’t like gods and magic in your spaceships, or spaceships in your fantasy, you may not care for the setup here. But I found the idea of a galactic empire powered by captive (and non-captive) gods, faith, and possession to be interesting enough. If Scalzi were to write a more complex and fully realized novel in this universe, I would be interested to see what he does with it.

Recommended?

Hard maybe. Again, you have to be open to a blurry line between science fiction and fantasy, and between fiction and faith. But also, it’s a very short book, so maybe grab it at the library?

Let me know what you think!

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