The Empire’s Ruin: A successful return to an engaging world

The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley 

The Empire’s Ruin (2021) kicks off a new series in Brian Staveley’s universe first introduced in his CHRONICLES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE trilogy and then expanded upon via the standalone novel, Skullsworn. The new series, ASHES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE, is a direct sequel to the earlier trilogy, and I strongly recommend reading in publication order, as several of this book’s characters appeared in the first series, while the events of that series drive the plot and characters of this new one. I will note that I found Staveley’s first UNHEWN THRONE book to be the weakest, so if you finish that unsure about whether to press on, I’d urge you to do so as book two is excellent and book three nearly as good.

We pick up a few years after that third book, with the Annurian Empire, after the devastating war and civil dissension/unrest depicted in the first series, falling apart even as the newly crowned Empress Adare tries desperately to keep things together. The magical portals once used by the emperors to keep track of the wide-flung empire are no longer usable, some regions are starting to get ideas of independence, and the Kettrals — the Empire’s elite airborne fighting force — is down to its last giant war raptor.

The Empire’s Ruin is a three-track novel, each following a different POV. In one, we follow the journey of the Kettral Gwenna Sharpe (my favorite character from the first series) after she is sent by the Empress on a mission to a remote continent shrouded in myth and mystery in hopes of finding Kettral eggs to replenish the Empire’s supply of warbirds. The other POV is set in the rebellious delta city of Dombâng (the same setting as Skullsworn) and follows Ruc, a priest of Eira, goddess of love. As opposed to his current position, Ruc’s past history is mysterious, filled with violence, and is somehow connected to Dombâng’s much more bloody gods, known as The Three. Finally, the third strand focuses on Akiil, a young thief-turned monk-turned thief again, who is attempting a long con on Empress Adare.

Akiil’s strand is, I’d argue, the weakest of the three. It feels a bit stretched out so as to better fit structurally within the novel, and there isn’t a great sense of urgency or tension in it. Akiil himself is a likable, engaging character, but his motivations at various points are a bit muddy, and a subplot involving his past is introduced but never really goes anywhere. It feels like we either needed more in his POV to flesh his story out or less, so the page time was more attuned to what actually happens plot and character-wise. Honestly, I’m not sure a lot would have been lost had his section been cut or cut and saved for the next book.

Brian Staveley

Brian Staveley

The other two are much stronger. Ruc, as part of Dombâng’s customary religious worship, ends up forced into a sort of gladiator role, along with Bien, the woman he loves and a fellow priest of Eira. He and Bien are partnered with a captured Annurian soldier, and the three of them, along with another trio, are trained in preparation for a fight to the death against others (some voluntary, many not so much) until those proven “worthy” by virtue of survival will go to face the Three. A lot is packed into Ruc’s storyline. One thread is the slow unveiling of his mysterious past and his desperate attempts to hold on to his principles of love as a prevailing force despite his inner urge to violence. Another is the arrival in Dombâng of foreigners who announce themselves as “messengers” of “The First,” warning the citizens of Dombâng that The First is coming, and they need to submit or die. The citizens, at least at first, do neither, choosing instead to kill all the messengers as they arrive.

A strong sense of urgency runs throughout Ruc’s storyline thanks to several ticking clock plots: the date of their first fight, the impending arrival of The First, and a desperate plan of escape that has to be timed out just right. On top of that, tension is heightened by conflict with a nasty trio of fighters also being trained, with the inherent suspicion between the Dombâng characters and their Annurian partner, and by several secrets I won’t detail here. The characterization in this section is richly drawn, and even the ones who are more sketchy are still captivating for their personal touches, such as their trainer Goatface. Finally for this section, I quite liked the more philosophical bent of it as we see internal and external debates over the efficacy of love and kindness in a world such as the one they inhabit.

Gwenna’s segment falls somewhere between the other two (though closer to Ruc’s). It starts The Empire’s Ruin off with a bang (almost literally) with a fantastic chase and fight scene, then continues to deliver most of the action in the novel via naval battles, storms, several fights scenes, monsters, and murder. Gwenna is perhaps a bit too super-powered (at least for my liking), but that relatively minor issue is more than compensated for by how the core of her story is not her success-against-all-odds fighting ability but instead is about her being utterly broken by the consequences of her decisions. An aid to piecing herself together is the relationship she forms with a young girl they find in an abandoned city. That thread is perhaps a bit predictable; I think readers will make some good guesses about what will happen and how there, and it may remind some of a similar setup in Aliens between Ripley and Newt (even the girl’s name, Rat, is somewhat similar), but despite that the relationship still moves in spots and also adds some much needed comic relief to the story.

Gwenna and Ruc’s storylines, and Akiil’s as well though to a lesser and less successful extent, all deal in some way with coming to terms with one’s past and reconstituting a sense of selfhood and identity, and the exploration of that theme is one of the stronger aspects of the novel. Setting is another plus, with Dombâng coming fully alive as a city and culture. Meanwhile, Gwenna’s journey takes her across a “poisoned” region that calls up echoes of Jeff VanderMeer’s SOUTHERN REACH trilogy, though with a more direct, more overt horror note to it.

I’m not sure The Empire’s Ruin needed all of its 700+ pages (actually, I’m pretty sure it didn’t). As already noted, Akiil’s storyline felt more than a bit superfluous and padded, and Gwenna’s could have been tightened somewhat. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time reading, zipping through the book in a day and a half without ever feeling a sense of impatience or being bogged down. And it certainly left me eager to see where the story goes from here. I call that a successful opening to a new series.

Published in July 2021. One soldier will bear the hopes of an empire. The Kettral were the glory and despair of the Annurian Empire – elite soldiers who rode war hawks into battle. Now the Kettral’s numbers have dwindled and the great empire is dying. Its grip is further weakened by the failure of the kenta gates, which granted instantaneous access to its vast lands. To restore the Kettral, one of its soldiers is given a mission. Gwenna Sharpe must voyage beyond the edge of the known world, to the mythical nesting grounds of the giant war hawks. The journey will take her through a land that warps and poisons all living things. Yet if she succeeds, she could return a champion, rebuild the Kettral to their former numbers – and help save the empire. The gates are also essential to the empire’s survival, and a monk turned con-artist may hold the key to unlocking them. What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever – if they survive. For deep within the southern reaches of the land, a malevolent force is stirring . . .

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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