I received this novel from Orbits Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
And once more it’s time to say goodbye to a series and a world that have grown on me with each new installment, and from what I hear it might be a definitive farewell, unless Mr. McClellan changes his mind and decides to go back to his extremely successful flintlock fantasy creation and the amazing characters peopling it. I for one dearly hope so…
Story-wise, the already high stakes from the previous books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire, have reached their peak here: the Dynize invasion force has settled in Landfall, trying to win the hearts and minds of the Palo by freeing them from the Fatrastan oppression and playing on their distant common origins. Unknown to the many, however, the Dynize leader Ka-Sedial is exploiting them to further his goal of godhood: as he gathers the godstones he will need to perform the ritual, he mercilessly uses the Palo population in the most horrible way. Michel Bravis, former Blackhat (the Fatrastan secret police) and undercover Palo mole, went into deep hiding after the invasion of Landfall and must now walk on the thin, dangerous line between necessary action and common safety, aided by an unexpected ally – Ichtracia, Ka-Sedial’s granddaughter and also the long-lost sister of Ka-poel.
The latter is assisting Mad Ben Styke and his Lancers in their mission to enter the heart of the Dynize empire and destroy the godstone set in the center of its capital: it sounds like a suicide mission indeed – the kind Ben seems to prefer – and it encounters many unforeseen obstacles and changes in plans, but it’s also a way to bring the readers to the very core of Dynize civilization and to learn more about this seemingly unstoppable force of conquest, and about what makes its people tick.
Last but not in any measure least, Vlora Flint: after the bloody battle at the end of Wrath of Empire she’s recovering from her grievous wounds and must also deal with the loss of her powder sorcery, which no one knows whether it’s temporary or permanent. That, and the rift with her second in command and lover Olem, leaves her unbalanced and riddled with doubt, but there is no time to dwell on personal troubles, because her army must advance toward Landfall to bring Ka-Sedial’s plans to ruin.
These are, in short, the main narrative threads of this final novel in the trilogy, and as much as they are engaging and often breath-stopping in their development – and as much as the skillful interweaving of these three threads keeps the story-flow at a relentless pace – what really drives Blood of Empire are the characters and their compelling journey. Michel Bravis is the one who changed my perspective the most: for the greater part of the first book in the series I did not like him – all that the author showed us on the surface of this character was his ambition to scale the ranks of the Blackhats, and to hell with any collateral damage. Then, little by little, his real nature came to the surface and I saw the initial misdirection for what it truly was, but it’s here that I came to truly care for Michel and for the strangest of reasons: here we see how leading the life of a double agent, of an individual who needs to wear different masks at a moment’s notice, has undermined his sense of self, his core identity, and he feels weakened by the realization that he’s not sure about who he really is anymore. It was this very weakness, this very human failing that ended up endearing him to me as it had never happened before.
As far as weakness goes, poor Vlora is indeed in a bad place: the wounds she suffered and which took her almost to the brink of death are not healing as quickly as she wishes, and the loss of her powder magic turns her into the equivalent of a person who lost a limb. Yet she discovers that she can still be a strong person, a solid commander, because she has not lost her cunning and experience: Vlora is the true heir of Tamas’ military teachings, and in this situation we see how they were ingrained in her experiences as a soldier first and then as a leader, helping her in devising the necessary strategies to defeat her enemies. One of the lessons Vlora learns from her impairment is that she can – and must – delegate, and lean on trusted advisers when necessary: in this the presence of Privileged Borbador, another former ward of Tamas, proves invaluable, not just for his powers but for the advice he can offer in the form or offhand comments that never failed to bring a smile to my face.
Bo deserves a special mention, because he’s a very atypical Privileged: every single one of them we encountered in the course of both trilogies was clearly corrupted by the power they possessed, turning them into callous creatures with delusions of godhood – not so for Bo, who has retained his humanity and even though he indulges in the licentiousness that’s part and parcel of Privileged life, he never falls into depravity and is always able to apply some self-effacing humor to himself. I like to think that it was Tamas’ example that kept Bo from turning into the kind of Privileged the Field Marshal wanted to eradicate.
Mad Ben Styke: it might seem strange to feel such sympathy for a character who gained his moniker through an insane penchant for bloody fighting, for reckless carnage. A person who acts first, in the most violent manner, and thinks later, if ever. And yet Ben Styke is the kind of person that gets under your skin and gains your affection because he’s very honest about himself and his faults – and because under the coarse skin of the berserker warrior there is a man of deep loyalty and deeper feelings, which come out in his caring for the men under his command and for the young orphan Celine, whom he has taken as a daughter. And it’s through Celine (a very skillful depiction of a child who had to grow quickly through adversity, while still able to walk the difficult line between childish ebullience and hard-earned wisdom) that we see the true Ben Styke come to the surface, and what I see in those moments is what makes me like him very much.
Blood of Empire brings this trilogy to a very satisfactory conclusion, blending adventure and politics, warfare and character growth with a skill that has been constantly improving since the first book of the Powder Mage series. My only complaint is that it’s the end – at least for now – of this magnificent saga: there are some elements in the final chapter that might be turned into a continuation of the overall story, and there lies my hope that this might be only a temporary ending. In any case, it’s been an amazing journey….