the Little Red Reviewer

The Emperor and the Maula by Robert Silverberg

Posted on: September 10, 2017

The Emperor and the Maula, by Robert Silverberg

available Sept 30th 2017

Where I got it: received advanced review copy from the publisher (Thanks Subterranean Press!)










Robert Silverberg’s The Emperor and The Maula is exactly what it says on the tin: this is a space opera version of the story of Scheherazade – in which a woman is sentenced to die at dawn and purchases another day of living by spinning a compelling tale for the emperor with dawn as her cue for a cliffhanger.


I love the idea of a space opera Scheherezade. Just think of how far an author could scale things up!  A number of years ago, there was a scifi anime made of The Count of Monte Cristo, with aliens, and travel to other planets, alien technologies and a very cool artistic style.  The writers took an earthly story and scaled it way the hell up, and it was brilliant.


What gives this wonderful little novella the “more” factor are its publishing history and the galactic scale a space opera environ allows. If you’re one of those readers who always skips introductions offered up by authors or their friends, make an exception for this one.  The history of this novella as seen through the logistics of the publishing industry is an adventure itself – rife with cliffhangers, cancelled publishing projects, word count requirements, adventures in selling the same story twice, concluding with the original novella being shoved in a file and forgotten about.   And now after twenty five years,  Silverberg fans can finally read The Emperor and the Maula in its nearly original form.  Funny, compelling, suspenseful, and given the space opera scale-up, this is exactly the kind of story an Earth woman might tell to an alien overlord on a planet far, far, away.


The Ansaaran Empire, benevolent ruling power of the known galaxy, brings culture and civilization to all planets.  Races living on backward planets are known as maulas, a word that translates to “barbarian”. If these people can ever find it in themselves to become cultured, perhaps one day, hundreds of years from now, they may be welcomed into the empire as citizens.


As an Earthling, Laylah is a maula and as such is forbidden from stepping foot on the sacred homeworld of the Ansaarans.   Knowing that the punishment is death, she travels far and wide, every year getting closer to her goal, and finally stepping off a starship and on to the sacred planet. Where she is summarily arrested. And then passed from one bureaucrat to another in a bureaucratic comedy of errors, as all of them know the punishment for her crime is death, but none of them want to be associated with the poor loser who will actually be responsible for someone’s execution.

It’s been hundreds of years since a barbarian was stupid enough to step foot on the Ansaaran homeworld, and when the story of this strange and illegal foreigner makes it to the Emperor, he is intrigued. Why would someone travel to the sacred homeworld, when they know the punishment is swift death?  Is this woman absolutely insane? He’s so damn curious about her!  So curious, in fact, that he puts her up in a royal apartment (complete with servants), sees that her every need is attended to, and demands that she tell him why she travelled all this way. She has until dawn, at which time she will be executed.


This is where The Emperor and the Maula veers away from its source material. Instead of telling fictitious and  fantastical adventures, Laylah tells the Emperor the story of her own life, the story of Earth, the story of the Ansaaran invasion, and how she became a traitor to her people.   These are not the stories of The Arabian Nights, yet they are amazing adventures full of bravery and fear and near death, stories the Emperor has never heard, taking place in exotic locations he will never visit.


As dawn approaches, Laylah comes to a cliffhanger in her story, and defies the Emperor’s order that she continue, as the time of her death has arrived.


They both know that if he allows her to die, he will never hear the end of the story.   He is the supreme ruler of the galaxy, yet he finds himself enthralled by this loquacious alien woman and the stories she spins.  He must, must know how the story ends, so every morning he makes her promise that tonight she will finish her story.   Does he keep her alive because he wants to hear the story? Because he likes the sound of her voice? Or because he’s realized that she is his connection to the outside world?


Lush with Silverberg’s signature flowing prose, the writing pulls you right in, surrounding you with sophisticated wit.   When Laylah tells of the Ansaaran invasion of Earth, you feel the pain in her words, her fear that she will never see her family again. You hear her naivete as she discusses being chosen to help the Ansaarans and her shock when her neighbors see her as a traitor. She is sitting across the table from the man who was responsible for all of that pain and fear and trauma.  Is her life in the Emperor’s hands, or is his life in hers?


I know Silverberg view much of his work as “work” – he writes a story, he gets paid for it, he goes on to the next project.  But reading his books never feels like work.  I don’t feel like I need to get somewhere, or understand something. I can just enjoy watching Laylah and the Emperor dance around each other, wondering how far they can push each other, and wondering which one of them will get the last word. Because it is a beautiful dance, between the two of them, one I could have happily enjoyed for a thousand and one nights.


How might a space opera version of Scheherezade end? With Layla making the bargain of her life to gain the prize she came for, of course.


What might the moral of The Emperor and the Maula be?   That every so often you should go through your “projects I thought I was done with and sort of forgot about” file.


6 Responses to "The Emperor and the Maula by Robert Silverberg"

Gankutsuou. Now that was one WEIRD anime. I bought it of course, but the art style intrigued me more than the actual story.


yeah, the plot was super slow and draggy, but the art style was incredible! I’d never seen anything like it! in fact, it was really distracting. Good thing I’d recently read the book before seeing the anime, because I was so distracted by the art style, that I could barely tell you want people were saying to each other.

Liked by 1 person

Silverberg isn’t – has never been – an author I liked much, so I’ll certainly skip this.


Readers seems to either really like Silverberg’s writing, or really don’t like him. no one seems much in the middle. I nearly always get a kick out of his stuff.


Have always enjoyed Silverberg. I will probably check this out.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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