Why You Need to Read: “The Empire’s Ruin”

Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, #1: The Empire’s Ruin

By: Brian Staveley

Published: July 6, 2021

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            “But it can’t be coincidence, can it? The Annurians burn down the Purple Baths and then, the very next morning, these naked fools show up talking about an attacking army,” (5). 

            When an individual reads a work of fiction, it is said that the reader is transported to that world—either ours or a fantastic one—as they become immersed in the narrative. In addition, there are some stories which remind readers of other things ranging from emotions to music. These moments of empathy allows readers to gain some comprehension of what the author was expressing as they wrote the story. Now, there are moments when the interpretation by the audience is wrong, but whatever they concluded should be acknowledged by the creator(s). After I was convinced to read The Empire’s Ruin—the 1st book in the Ashes of the Unhewn Throne trilogy—by Brian Staveley by another bookblogger, immediately, I was sucked into the narrative, and the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky played on loop in my head as I read this epic fantasy. 

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel who are part of a large dramatis personae, all who are part of the events that start to unfold from the 1st chapter. The first protagonist is Gwenna Sharpe, the former Commander of the Kettral Wing. Why “former” Commander? It is because Gwenna’s reckless behavior and her ability to ignore direct orders led to the deaths of a few of her comrades, and the death of the last (known) kettral—large birds used by the Annurian military for battle and other missions. Emperor Adare hui’Malkeenian strips Gwenna of her rank, but orders her to go on a voyage to Menkiddoc—a mysterious continent with ties to the present day Annurian Empire—on an expedition to retrieve kettral eggs. Accompanying Gwenna is the Royal Chief Historian, Kiel, who has extensive knowledge of both Menkiddoc and the Csestriim—a race of individuals who were wiped out by the Annurians thousands of years ago; First Admiral Jonan lem Jonan is the commander of the fleet and the expedition—who serves as Gwenna’s foil as well; the legionaries, Cho Lu and Pattick, who are fans of Gwenna’s “heroics”; during the expedition, the party meets Bhurma Dhar—the former Captain of a Manjari ship; and, an orphaned girl who may or may not know that whereabouts of the current residents of Menkiddoc. The entire crew have a lot to lose on this voyage and everything is hanging on the victory of this mission. However, Gwenna Sharpe needs more than the Emperor’s orders for her to remember what her purpose is to the Annurian Empire. 

            The second protagonist is Ruc Lakatur Lan Luc, a priest of Eria—Lady of Love. Ruc was raised among the Vuo Ton—a race of people from Dombâng who live in the delta which is as dangerous as the Vuo Ton’s way of life—but, he left that life 15 years earlier. Now, as a priest who practices love and pacifism, Ruc finds himself worried that recent events—the attack by the Annurians—is starting to unravel the instincts of his past. The recent attack has led to violence and riots in the name of numerous religions within the city of Dombâng. The followers of Eria are few, but Ruc and the other priests and priestesses—including Bien Qui Nai, Ruc’s girlfriend—do all they can to practice and to keep their faith. During a beatdown, Ruc and Bien come across a naked man who preaches that his god is “the First” and will overtake all of the other ones. This encounter causes Ruc to return to the Vuo Tun to gain some possible answers. After Ruc’s suspicions are confirmed, he rushes back to Eira’s Temple to find followers of other faiths attacking it. Ruc and Bien barely escape only to be arrested on charges of heresy. Their “punishment” is to participate in the fighting at the Arena. Their trainer is Goatface, who pairs Ruc and Bien with a captured Annurian soldier as a trio. Theirs is not the only group Goatface trains; there is the trio made up of Mouse, Monster and Stupid, who don’t seem to mind fighting in the Arena. Ruc must re-educate himself on how to survive in a hostile environment as he clings to his faith. 

            The third protagonist is Akiil, a former thief and “former” Shin monk of Ashk’lan. In fact, Akiil studied with the monks alongside Kaden, the brother of the reigning Emperor of Annur, who was the Heir Apparent before his “death.” Akiil meets with the Emperor so that he can attempt to con her. He hopes to do this by providing the Emperor with information about the kenta—a practice developed by the Csestriim and taught among the Shin monks—and its gates. Akiil’s plan is to “teach” the Emperor how to use the kenta in order to gain riches for himself. The Emperor is interested in the kenta because she wasn’t taught how to use it because she wasn’t the (original) heir to the Empire. However, with her brother dead and she without the knowledge, the Emperor may have some use of Akiil. The question isn’t who can use the kenta, but why the 2 opposite individuals want to use it. It turns out that while Akiil’s plan started off with him being a thieving monk, a person from his past alters his reasons for doing the job; but, what about the Emperor’s conviction for the knowledge? Will that affect Akiil and his plans? 

            There are 3 plots in this novel, and they are as complex as the characters. The first plot surrounds the Kettral. The birds are extinct in Annur, so the Emperor arranges for an expedition to search for them elsewhere. The second plot focuses on the in-fighting in Dombâng about religion—which god or gods are the most powerful? Which faith “deserves” to be practiced? The third plot delves into the knowledge the Emperor seeks, which is offered to her by a “thieving monk.” It seems that neither the thieving monk nor the Emperor should have this knowledge, but this is the least of their problems. There are 3 subplots in this novel as well. The first subplot involves the Csestriim. Their race is extinct; and yet, for some reason, the knowledge of the Csestriim could help Annur—the Kettral and the kenta—from destruction. The second subplot delves into magic and abilities a few characters can use. Unfortunately, not only are these powers esoteric, but also the users are ostracized by the majority of the world’s denizens. Why is that? The third subplot focuses on the new faith that is starting to emerge in Dombâng (and in Annur). The followers claim their god is the most powerful, but something is off about the followers—which, is something all of the other religious groups agree on. 

            The narrative occurs in the present tense and is told from multiple points-of-view of the protagonists: Gwenna Sharpe, Ruc and Akiil. The narrative is in the 3rd person limited which limits the story to what each protagonist is experiencing (and their knowledge) through their streams-of-consciousness and their memories. All of their experiences, flaws and mistakes, emotions make all of the protagonists reliable narrators. And, as long as the narrative is, it can be followed by the reader(s) easily.

            The style Brian Staveley uses for The Empire’s Ruin enhances the epic fantasy experience for the reader(s). At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how this story had me humming the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. The reason for this is because the 1st chapter is a battle sequence, and Tchaikovsky’s musical piece is a tale about Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invading army. What is an overture? An overture is defined as “an orchestral piece at the beginning of an opera, suite, or other extended composition (in the 17th century).” And, that is what the author has written, an epic fantasy that is just the beginning of what will be an admirable opera (Note: I didn’t study music theory). All of the narratives are part of the bigger story to come, and Brian Staveley wrote this story in a way that it is not too long, but with enough details to capture the readers’ attention. The mood in this novel is pugnacious. All of the protagonists find themselves in atmospheres or in situations where they must be ready to fight. Even if they don’t want to, they don’t have a choice because their survival depends on it. The tone in this novel is diversion. All of the fighting throughout Annur and Dombâng is drawing attention away from the threats that have started to appear. In fact, the threats have made their “proclamations” known to certain crowds, but to no avail. It seems that the protagonists and their comrades know the severity of these threats. Also, if you need to, then you can consult the maps located at the beginning of the book. 

            The appeal for The Empire’s Ruin have been positive. So far, the 500+ ratings on Goodreads have 4- and 5-star reviews which make up 89% of the total ratings. Now, don’t be turned off by the quantity of the reviewers, but pay attention to the quality of those reviews. Regardless of the amount of reviews the book has so far, it can’t be overlooked that almost all of the readers keep raving about it. This book is not only the first in a new epic fantasy series, but also is part of the saga of the Annurian Empire which started with the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series—no, I haven’t read that series, yet. In other words, fans of Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson and Melissa Caruso will enjoy this book—and, the upcoming books in this series—the most. This series will continue the expansive world-building that started with the author’s previous books. There is something you should know about this novel. Brian Staveley rewrote this entire book after his agent told him that the first draft “wasn’t good enough.” I’m glad (and, so are several other readers) that the author listened to his agent (I wonder if it was the same agent who told V.E. Schwab to rewrite her draft of Vengeful?). Obviously, it wasn’t an easy thing to do, but this book is the result and that’s a good thing. Whenever the next book in this series is released, I will be reading it!

            The Empire’s Ruin is the first book in a new series that is an expansion of a fantasy world fans and other readers of the speculative fiction genre have praised for years. This novel is an excellent place for newcomers to start reading about the Annurian Empire. Brian Staveley has written one of the best (and one of the most underrated) books of the year. This novel is the 1st in what’s to come in this epic fantasy, which will remind readers of a musical overture. You don’t believe me? Then, read both the first and the last chapters in this book with the 1812 Overture playing in the background, and let me know what you think. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Thank you to Tor (Books) and to Brian Staveley for sending me an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!