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 Shadow Saint”

The Black Iron Legacy: Book 2: The Shadow Saint

By: Gareth Hanrahan

Published: January 7, 2020

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark

            Ten months ago, at the height of what some call the Crisis and others the Gutter Miracle, a new city exploded into being within Guerdon, (Chapter 2).

            When you read a book that becomes one of your favorite books of all-time, you’re left with a sense of satisfaction. When you learn that book is part of a series, you become anxious. This is because you’re hoping the next book in the series is just as good as the current one while dreading the possibility that it’s not. Well, that’s not the case here! Gareth Hanrahan found a way to go beyond readers’ expectations and gifted us with The Shadow Saint, a strong sequel to The Gutter Prayer—his debut novel. The sequel takes place several months after the events in the first book, but a new conflict is the focus in this story.

            There are 3 new protagonists: Eladora Duttin, Carillon Thay’s cousin, who is struggling to strive and to survive in the New City; Terevant Erevesic, the second son of House Erevesic and (failed) Lieutenant of the Ninth Rifles; and, a spy, who goes by many aliases, whose latest assignment has him traveling into the New City. As the protagonists converge in the city formerly known as Guerdon, other characters are introduced in order to present the protagonists as complex and rounded with desires, regrets and failures, and a sense of responsibility. First, there is Effro Kelkin, the “Chair of the Emergency Committee and de Facto Ruler of Guerdon” and Eladora’s boss, whose biggest concern is the Parliament Election. Next, there is Olthic Erevesic, the Haith Ambassador and Terevant’s older brother, whose main concern is another election, one that puts him at odds with his wife, Lyssada. Last, there is Emlin, the “task” assigned to the spy and the chosen saint of the Fate Spider, a deity worshipped in both Severant and Ishmere. Not to mention, one or two relations to Eladora makes an appearance as well. While the protagonists might come off as “weaker” than the characters they interact with, it is the minor characters who present the protagonists as relatable, as they are forced to develop into themselves as a result of these interactions. 

            The plot in The Shadow Saint delves into the aftermath of a crisis. “The Gutter Miracle” has turned Guerdon into a hotspot for power-hungry politicians and religious leaders. For the politicians, two upcoming elections will determine both the dominance of one party and the directions Guerdon will go in. For the religious leaders, Guerdon is one of the last neutral territories in the Godswar. While some of these leaders try to form alliances with the politicians, others search the streets of Guerdon for a weapon that is rumored to have the power to destroy a god. The subplot focuses on the protagonists, who are victims of being used and abused by other people, including members of their families. All of these protagonists have been taken advantage of by others, but it’s how they manage to move on from those traumatic experiences—whether or not it’s through forgiveness, forgetfulness or vengeance—and deal with what’s happening in the present. This subplot is necessary for the plot because the protagonists find themselves thrust into the spotlight and they must decide whether or not they want to remain as “tools” for those who want to control them. The plot develops at an appropriate rate and it’s due to the subplot. 

            Once again, the narrative follows a chronological sequence of events which are told from multiple points-of-view. The flaws and the mistakes made by the protagonists and their ability to overcome them—and proving that it’s not as easy as it sounds—make them reliable narrators. The narrative explores the protagonists’ streams-of-consciousness—which include some flashback scenes—through 3rd person limited. This means that the P.O.V. character knows what’s happening where they are at that moment in the story, but the readers know everything that is occurring to everyone at the same time. Both the narrative and the emotions are easy to follow.

            The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is divided into world-building fantasy and political reality. Because Guerdon was saved, everyone is showing interest in it. Those people come from other places that have their own religion and reasons for gaining control of Guerdon. However, in order to understand why, world-building is required. The various cultures and religions as well as the events of the Godswar is presented through the world-building by the author. The politics struggling for power demonstrates the reality within the fantasy by using numerous events throughout human history as a source. The mood in the story is chaos. The city of Guerdon was saved, but that has led to more conflicts and even more conspiracies involving gods, saints, war, and elections. The tone here is resilience; which of the characters demonstrate it and why they do so. If the story wasn’t identical to current events, then this could almost be a satire. 

            The appeal for The Shadow Saint have been positive. Fans of The Gutter Prayer and/or grimdark will appreciate the direction the author decided to go for in the sequel. Readers who are curious, yet unsure whether or not to read the sequel should know that the difference is the characters and their P.O.V.s. This means that everything fans and readers enjoyed in the first book is in this one, too. The sequel is not only a great addition to the grimdark and fantasy canon, but also cements Gareth Hanrahan as an accomplished author. And, based on the ending and the revelations at the end of this book, readers will be eager to reader the 3rd book in the series, when it comes out. Please note: According to the author, there will be 4 books in this series.

            The Shadow Saint is a sequel which demonstrates the triumph accomplished by the author who delivers on the expectations of the fans, the readers and the critics. The shift from thieves to forgotten relatives proves that the characters are just as well-written as the story and its world. If you haven’t already done so, then start reading this series! You won’t regret it!

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

Review of Season One of “His Dark Materials”

Season one of His Dark Materials, based on The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman has completed its run on the BBC and on HBO, and they didn’t alter the ending! Overall, season one was a great adaptation to the books and some of the “fillers” worked well for the narrative that was presented to the audience. Readers got to enjoy scenes that were denied to them from the 2007 movie and viewers were able to grasp the demeanor of all of the characters thanks to both the actors’ portrayals of the characters and the “fillers” which were added for additional context. 

            It should be mentioned that the TV mini-series was a better adaptation than the movie, but this is due to the fact that neither the studios, nor the test audience (these are based on rumors, which have circulated over and over again) interfered with the editing of the series. The order of the events presented matched the way they occurred in the books, the “true” ending of season one ended the way it does in the books, and the revelations of what was happening to the missing children weren’t glossed over. Yes, the movie did get a lot of things right, and those were repeated in the series, but the TV series is more in tandem with the books.

            The issues I have with the series so far should be mentioned as well. First, is the aging up of some of the younger characters. Lyra, Roger, and Billy were all close to the age of the characters they portrayed (between 10 and 12 years-old), but Will Parry was aged up to 15 years-old (he’s around 12-13 years-old when readers first meet him). I want to say this was because of the age of the actor who is portraying Will, but it’s difficult to determine whether or not this is the case. Yes, there have been some cases in which the age of the character(s) have been altered due to the actors that play them, but there have been even more examples of when it’s happened because the studio(s) believe it’ll make the narrative “more believable.” If it’s the former, then I have no complaint; but if it’s the latter, then they should stop making it so obvious. 

            Next, were the ways the proximity of daemons were presented to the viewers. While in the books, it is unclear what the actual distance a human can be “away” from their daemon, it is clear that the proximity has to be very close in order for human and daemon to maintain their bond and their lives. However, there are moments when the proximity is unclear and that is due to the way some of daemons are presented. Sometimes they are far enough for the individual not to experience pain, and then they are so far away that you wonder whether or not they could be similar to a witch’s daemon. I hope the network and the studio corrects this misconception for season two because it became very confusing between each episode. 

            Last, was the way Dust is presented throughout the season. The mystery of Dust was portrayed better than the knowledge of it. The explanation provided in the season finale is straight from the books, but the “danger” of someone outside of Jordan College and the Magisterium having knowledge of what Dust is—which, was presented better in the movie—wasn’t demonstrated in the series the way it should have been, in my opinion. Then again, Dust is supposed to be remain a mystery throughout the series until the end. 

            Besides the casting and the special effects, there were several things that I enjoyed about season one from the titles of the episodes—based on chapters in the books—to the way the parental figures were portrayed in the series. Presenting both Mrs. Coulter and Mrs. Parry as “damaged” individuals who try to balance their demeanor with their desire to be mothers to their children was presented extremely well. The issue of succession and power amongst the panserbjørne and the Magisterium—which, are both essential to the plot of the story—were presented (with the details given throughout the books) with the hypocrisy immensely. And, the motives of Lord Asriel and his reasons for doing everything he does comes back full circle. Lord Asriel is what keeps the narrative moving along and the series makes sure that the viewers do not forget it. Yet, it was Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of Mrs. Coulter that grasped the viewers’ attention the most. 

            Overall, season one of His Dark Materials was the adaptation fans of the books waited for patiently, and the wait was worth it. All of the details that were omitted from the 2007 movie were included, the pacing matched the books and were appropriate for a TV mini-series, and the inclusion of source material from other books in the Philip Pullman’s universe—both The Book of Dust and The Subtle Knife—enriched the narrative more than expected and it worked well for the audience, both readers and viewers. Season two was announced by the BBC (with HBO promising to continue showing the series in the U.S.), which is great because this news is what book fans have been waiting for the most! The adaptation of The Subtle Knife will not only continue Lyra’s story, but also continue the narrative from the multiple cliffhangers this time around. Yes, the books should be read, but knowing that the mini-series will continue makes book fans as excited as the viewers more than anyone else can imagine! 

If you want the reviews of each episode, then you can click on each of the episode titles below:

S1, Ep.1: Lyra’s Jordan

S1, Ep. 2: The Idea of North

S1, Ep. 3: The Spies

S1, Ep. 4: Armour

S1, Ep. 5: The Lost Boy

S1, Ep. 6: The Daemon-Cages

S1, Ep. 7: The Fight to the Death

S1, Ep. 8: Betrayal

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10! 

Why You Need to Read: “Empire of Sand”

The Books of Ambha: #1: Empire of Sand

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 13, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

Winner of the Brave New Words Award 2019

            The Emperor’s hatred had not grown suddenly, as Mehr had so foolishly believed when Maryam had warned her of his messages to his nobles. His hatred was a storm that had grown ever larger by feeding on itself, and Mehr had been protected from the full weight of it by the shelter of her privilege and of the very Ambhan walls that so stifled her. Now the storm was too great for even Mehr to ignore. Her status as the Governor’s daughter couldn’t protect her forever. She had Amrithi blood, and the Amrithi were being erased, (Chapter Two). 

            I’ll repeat what I’ve said about the speculative fiction released in 2018: it was the best year yet! There were many debut novels that gained the acclaim of fans and critics alike. In addition, there seemed to be a debut novel that represented each region of our world. Tasha Suri is one of many whose novel takes place in a historical fictionalized Middle East. Empire of Sand reflects on the notions of “old magic” and the oppression of the users that comes with it from those with political power. 

            Mehr, who is 18 years-old, is the eldest illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah. Mehr and her younger sister, Arwa, who is 9 years-old, live with their father and their stepmother, Maryam, at the Governor’s home. As daughters of a nobleman, the sisters live sheltered lives of luxury; as daughters of an Amrithi woman, the sisters have magic in their blood. Mehr is old enough to remember their mother and has accepted the customs of her mother’s people. Arwa is too young to remember their mother, but Maryam has no issue with raising and molding Arwa into an Ambhan noblewoman. Obviously, Mehr and Maryam are at odds with each other and it seems that the girls’ father is unaware of the relationship between his wife and his daughters. As paranoid as Maryam is, it turns out that she is right to be worried about Mehr’s rebellious behavior. When Mehr defies her family’s wishes and her mother’s cultural paranoia, she is married off and sent away to become a “tool” of the Empire. She is married to Amun, a full-blooded Amrithi who has been a captive of the Maha—mystics of the Religious Order—since he was a child. Married, isolated, and far from home, Mehr has to figure out how to survive her new life, to stay alive, to determine who is trustworthy, and to determine how much magic she has and what that means for her. Throughout the novel, Mehr grows into a powerful woman who embraces both her magic and her culture as she interprets the use of her power for the good of everything she cares about.

            The plot of the story follows the culture and the traditions of South Asia, along with its dark side based on historical events. “The rule of law and rule of faith are tied together. One cannot exist without the other,” (p.76). The Maha—the one in charge of the mystics—founded the Empire, so the Emperor and all of the Ambhan are “blessed” with their fortunes and lifestyles because of them. However, when angered, or demand something and are denied, the Maha can become anyone’s worse enemy. And, Mehr has alerted the Maha of her presence and her heritage. The mystics demand that she serves “for the Maha and the Empire.” Mehr knows that this goes against the practices of the nobles and her father threatens to rebel. Mehr gives into the demands in order to protect her family, especially Arwa. The plot develops as Mehr grows into herself and she learns more about the Maha and the Empire. She learns the reasons why her mother left her father, and her father’s neglect to teach her what she needed to know about herself and the Empire. Mehr soon realizes that power is determined based on who wields it. And, if the Emperor looks to the Maha for power, then does that mean the Maha hold the power? The subplot here is family and the bonds that come with it. Mehr sees herself as her mother’s daughter to the horror of her stepmother. Maryam, who has not been able to have children of her own, claims Arwa as hers and does everything in her power to keep the sisters apart. While her abuse of Mehr and harsh upbringing of Arwa is disturbing, her paranoia is justified when the Maha demand Mehr to be delivered to them. At the same time, Mehr learns more about her mother and father’s relationship as well as the decisions they made together and separately. This subplot is essential to the plot in that all of Mehr’s decisions are based on what’s best for her family. 

            The novel is told in real-time from the point-of-view of Mehr. With the exception of 3 chapters from 3 minor characters, the narrative is told in 3rd person free indirect discourse. In other words, readers are aware of all of Mehr’s thoughts, impressions, and perceptions—a.k.a. stream-of-consciousness—and, given the mistakes Mehr makes throughout the story and her known flaws, she is a reliable narrator. 

            The style Tasha Suri uses in her novel presents the various lifestyles people of different classes and faiths have even in modern South Asia. The descriptions of the different homes and clothes display the distinction between cultures and social classes. The word choice and the figurative language that illustrates the lands and the dances gives the beauty of the two to the readers. The mood in this story is the beauty of the Empire, which the Gods created. Yet, the tone in the novel is the balance of the world and the consequences of any unbalance in the world whether or not it’s from divine intervention, societal expectations, or parental influence. In all, the style presents how beauty in the world can remain if there is a balance. 

            The appeal surrounding Empire of Sand have been immensely positive. The novel has received positive reviews from critics, readers, and other authors. The novel has been nominated for several awards including the Locus Award; and, it won the Brave New Words Award in 2019! This fantasy novel is a beautiful debut and a wonderful addition to the speculative fiction genre. Fans will want to re-read Empire of Sand, especially before the sequel, Realm of Ash, is released in November 2019. I should warn readers that in addition to familial abuse and neglect, there is a scene in the story that contains non-consensual sex, and scenes of torture and murder. Other than those scenes of trauma, the novel is worth reading and the follow-up looks to be very promising, too.

            Empire of Sand is a beautiful debut novel about the history of an empire that struggles to maintain control of everything and how the bonds of love and family can help an individual endure suffering. Even though there were some flaws surrounding the pacing of the novel, my love of the characters is what kept me reading this novel. Empire of Sand was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018, and I’m really excited for the next book in the series, and any future books by the author!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!