If The Android’s Dream could be looked at as John Scalzi taking the humorous side of his writing to its logical extreme in a novel, The God Engines could be seen as the opposite, as it is a very serious, rarely humorous, and very dark fantasy. (Well, a fantasy with spaceships.) It may also be his best work to date.
Captain Ean Tephe of the Righteous seems practically like a set-up for a Star Trek story, but in this case Tephe’s ship is in the fleet of a culture which serves its god, a god which has been conquering other gods since creation came into being. Many of the conquered gods are now the power source for the ships of the fleet, and Tephe’s god gains power through the faith of his followers, a faith stoked on the Righteous by the ship’s priest, Ando, whom Tephe doesn’t care for very much. Tephe is recalled to lead a mission to bring his god’s faith to a new planet, a planet that doesn’t know of any gods, and whose faith could therefore be seen as purer than those of long standing. This journey both reveals to us the details of the culture in which Tephe lives, and reveals to Tephe some unpleasant truths underlying that culture.
For such a short novel, Scalzi packs in plenty of details, such as what happens to the followers of the conquered gods, how the social structure on the Righteous works, and glimpses into the workings of the government and priesthood. But he keeps the story focused on Tephe, who is a moral and practical man who turns a blind eye to things he doesn’t like that he can’t change, and who also fervently wishes to command a spaceship even though he’s promised much greater things once this mission is completed.
By the end of the book, the fantasy has turned to horror, quite effectively so. The actual conclusion I found a little disappointing as I’d hoped things would turn out differently, but I can certainly see the argument that things couldn’t have gone any differently. Despite that, I thought The God Engines was an outstanding story, not in the least diminished through the relative lack of Scalzi’s trademark zingers (the story isn’t entirely without humor, but it’s very much reduced in quantity). I’d love to see him do more of this sort of thing, especially since I didn’t care at all for the other direction, as seen in The Android’s Dream. Though I think the smart money is on us seeing more novels somewhere in the middle, as his Old Man’s War series has been.