It occurs to me I can pinpoint the exact point where Last Exile went astray:
after the strike team entered the Grand Stream to hunt for Exile. Until that point, the subplot of the intra-empire war and Guild tyranny was masterful. The coronation scene, where the Guild warship ominously hangs overhead and releases rose petals, was a pure spectacle of awe. The entire subplot of Alex Row made perfect sense and gave the needed context at last to just who Lavie’s and Claus’ fathers were – and why their mission was so vital. Even the bizarre antics of Dio were tolerable. And I practically cheered to see Fat Chicken, Nosehair, and Hurricane Hawk again.
Everything that happened after that point was an unnecessary convolution. The only plot event that was required was that the Guild would board the Silvana and take Alex prisoner. The rest of the story could easily have taken place in the Grand Stream. Claus’ entire captivity and subsequent escape to Norkia and then truly bizarre relay race back to the Dragon’s Fangs were totally irrelevant and only served one purpose, to “reset” Claus to the other side of the Grand Stream so he could “cross” it with Lavie instead of cheating by flying through it halfway.
Numerous plot strings (and characters) were begun and then abandoned. The deck crew were going to mount a rescue of Alex? Nope. Dio’s elder brother was going to go retrieve the Empress? Nope. Somebody, somewhere, was going to answer Claus’ simple question of what the connection was between Exile and Alvis? Nope (she’s the “key”. She glows a lot.) Wasn’t Alex going to destroy Exile, which put him in conflict with teh Empress, who wanted to capture it? Dio was going to anything? Nope. (that last particularly irks me. Dio’s entire character turns out to be nothing more than a setup for a heroic scene of self-sacrifice and love by his faithful slave. I mean “friend”.) Did Mullin live or die? who the hell knows; there’s a dude who could be Mullin in the epilogue hanging out with the Disith chick. And what about Lavie and Claus? they seem stuck in stasis, forever.
How could this have been solved? Here’s just one way they could have done it instead.
The Silvana and Urbanus encounter Exile. Alex attempts to give an order to destroy Exile, using the new superweapon he had installed at the Casino Royale. He argues that Exile’s existence means perpetual oppression of the people by whoever has control, hence it must be eliminated. The Empress forcefully argues with Alex (while the crew stands unready as to who order to obey). She asks Alex to trust her, and that Exile can be used for the good of all the people; it is an instrument of freedom if used as intended. Alex gives in, conceding that she has knowledge of Exile that he lacks.
Silvana and Urbanus manage to capture Exile using long range tethers. In doing so, they fight a pitched battle against two Guild Warships guarding it. In the confusion, Dio is captured and taken to Maestro Delphine. Delphine begins the ceremony, brainwashing Dio. She then departs on her personal warship to attend to Exile, leaving the Trial to play out without direct supervision (confident of its outcome).
Delphine arrives at Exile and a gigantic battle is waged again. Urbanus is destroyed, and Silvana is boarded. Alex, Alvis and Dio are captured and Exile is restored to Guild control. Luciola remains at Dio’s side. Alex deliberately addresses Sophie as XO in front of Delphine and asks her to apologize to the Empress. They exchange a significant look. Delphine is amused and asks if he has any last words to his beloved ship. Alex looks at Sophie and says “I love you.” It is not clear who he is addressing, but Sophie responds, “I know.”
The Dagobert engineer in Silvana’s engine room is killed as a traitor by the Guild forces. Before discovery, he causes a temporary outage making it appear that the Claudia Unit is offline and damaged beyond repair. Silvana is left damaged and adrift in the Grand Stream with expectation that she is no longer a threat without her captain or Claudia unit. Delphine taunts Sophie, saying that she will take special care of Alex.
Delphine returns to the Guild HQ, with Exile in tow, to oversee the ending of the Ceremony. While the Guild is distracted, the coup against the Claudia Units is begun. Captain Mad-Thane is successful and leads the remaining Disith and Antoray fleets to the Grand Stream, since they realize that the advance team has failed.
Dio wins the Trial and is crowned next Maestro by Delphine. Luciola realizes that the Dio he knew is dead.
Delphine attempts to take control of Exile using the Key (Alvis) and Alex’s knowledge of the Mysteriums. She is thwarted by Alex’s genuine ignorance of the final Mysterium, but manages to trick Alex into revealing the identity of the Empress. Angry that the Empress slipped from her grasp so easily thanks to Alex’s deception, she orders Cicada to return to Silvana and retrieve the Empress. Meanwhile, the activation process has initiated the “recall” sequence of Exile to its key-dock in the Disith wasteland.
On Silvana, which has regained power, Claus and the deck crew prepare to launch a rescue operation with the heavy cruiser to retrieve Alex. Moments after they depart, Cicada arrives at the Silvana in a starship squadron, and boards the ship. Luciola, who is with the advance team, rebels against Cicada and the Guild at the last moment and chooses freedom, pledging fealty to the Empress. He defeats Cicada in hand to hand combat. The Silvana is still about to fall to the Guild starships when surprise reinforcements arrive from Mad-Thane’s Vanship squadron. The Empire’s combined fleet now advances on the Guild headquarters.
The Guild HQ is thrown into turmoil by Exile’s sudden motion towards its keydock. the HQ sustains severe damage as Exile lashes out with its tentacles at the giant structure. Delphine is distracted and in the confusion, Claus and crew sneak aboard the Guild HQ and find Alvis and Alex. They are being guarded by Dio, who taunts “Immelman”. However, Dio is weakened by the Trial and thus is subdued by the deck crew. Delphine arrives with a force of Guild warriors, and prevents the rescue of Alex, but Claus and crew manage to escape with Alvis. The gay guy sacrifices himself to save Claus.
Claus and crew manage to get to their ship but they are surrounded by starfish fighters. Claus and the crew split up; he takes a starfish and the others get aboard the heavy cruiser. Claus attempts to clear a path for them, but Dio appears and challenges Immelman to a duel. The cruiser, carrying Alvis and the surviving deck crew, is about to be destroyed when the Fleet arrives and the skies are filled with dueling vanships and starfish.
The Guild HQ cannot sustain itself after heavy damage from Exile and drops from the sky, falling back towards Antoray. The main HQ falls directly atop the Dragon’s Fangs and is utterly destroyed; the debris rains upon the desert below. The lower section breaks free and falls upon Norkia, causing immense damage to the city walls.
Alvis is safely returned to Silvana. The Empress brings her to the control deck.
Dio and Claus have an epic dogfight. Dio is gaining the upper hand, but then Claus manages to play upon his psyche with references to freedom and the life he had aboard Silvana. Luciola also speaks to Dio using his personal communicator, pleading with him to join him aboard Silvana again. Dio is tormented from within. Neverthless, Dio gets a lock on Claus and is about to fire.
The vanships are being decimated by the starships and the Grand Stream winds. The Fleet is likewise not faring well against the Guild warships. The Empress orders the fleet to get as close to Exile as possible. Mad-Thane protests that it will be a war of attrition. The Empress responds, “this *is* a war of attrition”. Mad-Thane orders the vanships to cease engaging the starfish and focus all their efforts on the Guild flagship. The vanships attempt to penetrate the flagship and destroy it from within, as per their training excercises. It will require the entire squadron to take out the flagship.
At the last minute, Dio only says “Bang!” instead of destroying Claus, whom he had otherwise dead to rights. Claus is astonished and then hopeful, calling out to Dio to join him, but Dio vanishes into the Stream.
Exile breaks free of the Grand Stream and descends towards the keydock in Disith, dragging the dueling fleets in its wake. The Empress has Alvis recite the mysteria as they approach, and Exile begins to react. Alvis realizes she has rudimentary control of Exile and directs the tentacles to avoid attacking the Fleet ships, sparing them.
Delphine is about to order the Guild to destroy Exile rather than permit it to fall under the Empress’ control. Suddenly, Alex Rowe has his revenge upon Delphine, surprising her. The effort required causes the rose vines to tighten, strangling Alex. Both Alex and Delphine die, as the flagship is destroyed form within by the vanship squadron.
The great battle ends, with the Guild fleet being largely decimated by Exile, the flagship destroyed by the vanship attack, and the surviving Fleet descending towards Disith with Exile. Exile docks with its keydock and the transformation of the world begins.
The Empress, in a bit of much needed exposition, explains to Claus that Alvis carries a genetic code that makes her receptive to Exile. Exile was designed to be the Ark that carried the settlers to Prester. Additional exposition reveals Prester to be an hourglass-shaped world (a world in a “bottle”) with the lands of Disith and Antoray on the insides, facing the bottleneck.
Prester, the world in a bottle:
That about wraps it up. I found the wikipedia entry on Prester to really help fuel the imagination about what Last Exile could have been.