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Sunday, June 6, 2021

Empire's Ruin by Brian Staveley review


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: BRIAN STAVELEY is the author of the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series, starting with The Emperor's Blades. He has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his writing, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He lives in Vermont, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby wrangling.

FORMAT: Publishes on July 6, 2021, with Tor Books. Print length: 752 pages Cover art by Richard Anderson.

OVERVIEW: The Empire’s Ruin opens a new chapter in the Unhewn Throne world’s history. It follows separate (but converging) plotlines for three characters, all (except one) known to Staveley’s fans. The story opens in the middle of the action and never slows down. 

The world is a mess, and the Annurian empire is in shambles. Wherever you look, things are going from bad to worse. And for Gwenna, things turned disastrous. After failing both her team and her empire, she’s stripped of rank. Because of her unique skills and training, The Emperor sends her beyond the edge of the known world to find the nesting ground of the Kettral (giant war hawks). And, perhaps, to redeem herself. 

Staveley’s characters are distinct, fleshed-out and memorable. Gwenna’s struggles with self-loathing and apathy felt nuanced and convincing. She’s a badass, but everyone has limits and in The Empire’s Ruin Staveley crossed them. No, not crossed. He scorched them with napalm. Gwenna’s deconstruction and the amount of pain she went through would destroy lesser characters.

The other two POV characters, Ruc Lakatur Lac Lan (a child of a killer raised by apex predators, turned the Priest of The Goddess of Love) and Akiil (a shin monk and a thief) have compelling arcs too. Ruc wants to share love but has to fight for survival in the arena (with other warriors and his violent instincts). Akiil proves that monastic discipline can serve as the perfect foundation for a life of crime. 

Staveley's characters have origin stories rooted in trauma and violence, and he captures it all masterfully. He writes violence with a distressing matter-of-factness and graphic detail without luxuriating in it. No one really thrives in this brutal world, and perhaps one way to survive it requires losing sensitivity? But that's the easy path and his characters rarely take the easy way.

As the plot of The Empire’s Ruin unfolds, more and more information about the past and the Csestriim’s heritage seeps in. They have eradicated the Nevariim, but have you ever wondered at what price? The answer may lead to the undoing of the world, especially if the inconspicuous weapon falls in the wrong hands.

There is much in The Empire's Ruin that follows the conventions of the fantasy genre, but  Staveley finds a way to make it feel fresh. I mean, we get fantasy BlackOps flying on giant birds (Kettral) and godlike members of ancient races fighting for power (Nevariim) or understanding (Csetriim). Thanks to his imagination, great prose, as well as twists on familiar cliches, Staveley's work stands head and shoulders above the mass of multi-volume fantasy series.

Besides providing action, drama, and perilous adventures, The Empire's Ruin explores deeper themes – love and death, humanity, and the meaning of life. 

In theory, The Empire’s Ruin opens a new trilogy with new players and new stakes. In practice, readers who haven’t read The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne or Skullsworn will lose a lot of nuances and probably won’t enjoy it as much as those who already know the world and the characters. I strongly advise you to start at the beginning and enjoy the wild ride.

CONCLUSION: The first book in a series has the difficult job of being a compelling novel in its own right while preparing for what will follow. The Empire's Ruin delivers on both fronts. This ferociously gripping, blood-soaked, and character-driven epic is outstanding. 



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