I received this novel from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review.
A few years ago, I read – and enjoyed – Brian McClellan’s first volume of his Powder Mage trilogy, Promise of Blood. It was a good and engaging start to a new fantasy series, but for some reason – mainly the fact that I get far too easily distracted by any new title that catches my attention – I did not read the two remaining volumes. With the passing of time, my recollection of the events and characters in Promise of Blood faded considerably, so that I knew I would have to re-read book 1 first once I decided to pick up the series again.
When I saw Sins of Empire and realized it was set some ten years after the time-frame for the first trilogy, I knew it offered me an opportunity to get back into this world, one where magic shows peculiar features: besides wielders of more “conventional” magic, called Privileged, there are Powder Mages, people graced with exceptional strength, speed and endurance through the use of gunpowder, besides having the ability to detonate it from a distance. Then there are people gifted with a knack, a lesser talent – like needing little or no sleep, or sensing the presence and use of magic – that can nonetheless be quite useful. This much I remembered from my past reading of Promise of Blood, and it helped me settle into this world with no effort, but I should not have worried about it anyway, because the time and place removal of this novel from the original trilogy makes it a totally new start anyone can enjoy, and the author shows a great skill in inserting a few useful snippets of information that refer to the past, and help ground the narrative, without slowing the pace of the story at all.
The nation of Fatrasta gained its independence through a bloody war and is now on the way toward an economic boom, although not everything works smoothly: the Palo natives are marginalized by the Fatrastans and there is unrest brewing both on the frontier and in the capital city of Landfall, administered with an iron fist by Chancellor Lindet and her Blackhat secret police. In the outreaches of Fatrasta, lady Vlora Flint (a character from the original trilogy) and her Riflejack mercenary army are battling against Palo insurgents when they are called back to Landfall as additional manpower against the brewing rebellion carried out in the name of the mysterious Mama Palo, a dissident leader hiding in the warrens of Greenfire Depths, the capital’s Palo enclave where even the Blackhats fear to walk. Michel Bravis, a Blackhat Iron Rose (which means a high-lever officer), is given the task of rooting out the revolutionary clique responsible for the printing and distribution of an anti-government pamphlet, and finds himself, in case of failure, in the unenviable position of losing his status and any hope of acquiring the prestigious Gold Rose that will secure his standing. And last but not least, Ben Styke, former commander of the Mad Lancers, a famed Fatrastan assault battalion, has been languishing in a labor camp for ten years with little hope of getting out alive, when a mysterious lawyer manages his release in exchange for a peculiar request…
These are the three main storylines that give life to Sins of Empire, alternating chapters between the various characters while building them little by little: this is the main reason for the quick pace of this novel that caught my interest and imagination from page one, and never let go. There is much more going on, however, because Landfall is shortly revealed as a power keg waiting only for the right spark, and there are many different currents moving in the background and slowly but inexorably building toward the final showdown. Characters are indeed the driving force of the story, and my absolute favorite is Mad Ben Styke (the “mad” moniker more than amply justified…): a hulking bear of a man prone to violence and with more than a few shadows in his past, but nonetheless the kind of person anyone would want guarding their back in a dangerous situation, and one capable of the most unexpected tenderness and care, as shown with his taking charge of young Celine, a street urchin he met in the labor camp. And Celine is a great character on her own as well, her youth and innocence offset by street-wise expediency and her utter admiration for Ben’s killer instincts.
Vlora Flint, who I remember vaguely from my first foray into McClellan’s storytelling, is a well-rounded, ass-kicking lady hardened by military campaigns and the mistakes of her past (whose hints made me decide I must not wait any further to explore the original trilogy), who nonetheless still cares about decency and fairness, and above all wants the best for the men under her command. If the world described in these books is a welcome variation on the usual fantasy setting, with its end-of-18th / beginning of 19th century feeling, Vlora is a few steps removed from the typical heroines of the genre, even the most empowered ones, because her courage is also supported by pragmatism and a strong sense of responsibility. Knowing more about what makes her tick and what created the person I encountered in this book has now become an imperative.
The character I found most difficult to approach is that of Michel Bravis, particularly because of a few personality quirks – like the habit of keeping long conversations with himself while debating plans and strategies – that puzzled me no end. I could however relate to his need to keep afloat in the difficult milieu of the Blackhats, especially after meeting their commander in chief Fidelis Jes, a real psychopath if there ever was one, and most importantly after a huge revelation shifted my opinion of Michel a nice 180 degrees, while at the same time changing the rules of the game in a major way.
And remarkable revelations do indeed abound in this novel, especially concerning identity and goals, to the point I was often reminded of a quote from my beloved Babylon5: “no one here is exactly what they appear”. The surprises that the author sprung on me along the road were both unexpected and momentous, and added to my enjoyment of the story, one that starts deceptively slowly but builds with inexorable momentum toward the final showdown – a battle of epic proportions that kept me on tenterhooks the whole time. In this regard, I must reveal that I usually don’t do well with battle scenes, since I find them both confused and confusing: not so here, where the crystal-clear cinematic quality of the writing made those scenes come alive in my mind’s eye.
Despite being the first book in a new series, Sins of Empire does not end in a true cliffhanger (which is something I greatly appreciate), but still lays the groundwork for some very intriguing developments, the most important of them being a danger coming from far away, something steeped in legends and the half-remembered past. Only the awareness I can now backtrack through Brian McClellan’s previous works will help me weather the wait for the next installment.
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