Serena’s Review: “The Empire’s Ruin”

Book: “The Empire’s Ruin” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used.

In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates.

But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir.

What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive. 

Review: I was so excited when I saw an ARC of this pop up on Edelweiss several months ago. I really enjoyed both the original “Unhewn Throne” trilogy by Brian Staveley as well as his companion/prequel stand-alone, “Skullsworn.” I knew he had another book in the works, but I hadn’t been paying overly much attention to when it was slated for release. Call me jaded, but epic fantasy isn’t the most reliable of genres for timely releases! But it arrived at last, and I wasted no time before diving right in.

Five years after the events of the first trilogy, the Annurian empire is scrambling to hold itself together. Adare, unable to use the kenta gates, the magical doorways that allow the sitting empire to quickly travel throughout the land, is desperate to hold her world together. To do so, she recruits a thief-turned-monk who promises he can teach her how to use the magical passages. But the empire is weak in more than one way. With the Kettral depleted, Gwenna is sent on a perilous mission to travel south into a land riddled with madness and monsters in search of Kettral eggs to bring back in the hope of rebuilding the powerful fighting force. And on the edge of the Empire, revolution has struck and two priests discover that their may be more Gods in the world than they had thought. And a new one has arrived with plans of conquest.

The story is split between three characters (sadly, Adare is not one of them). While the book is approachable to new readers, long-time fans of the series will be most rewarded. Gwenna, the Kettral warrior, had POV chapters in the last two books in the original trilogy. And Ruc, a priest of the Goddess of love who resides in the swamp-surrounded city of Dombang, was a character readers met in “Skullsworn.” The third character is a priest who grew up alongside Kaden whom readers briefly met in the first book. Gwenna is the most familiar of the three, but this prior knowledge of their stories does add depth to their arcs here, and fans of the previous books will be rewarded with little tidbits and references throughout the story.

This book is definitely the first in a series (duology? trilogy?). In that way, much of the story is set-up for the larger conflicts to come. We see that in the carefully laid groundwork that plays out in our three main story lines. Each drops several small pieces here and there to the larger plot, but none of the characters have a full view of the greater picture. Indeed, their plot lines barely even brush each others, all three living out very different experiences in far-spread parts of the world. Due to this, the story definitely progresses in a slow, careful manner. There are some tense action scenes, probably the best coming in Gwenna’s chapters, but the overall plot is mostly concerned with setting the stage.

However, the writing is as strong and compelling as ever. So while the book wasn’t a fast read or full to the brim with a moving plot, I was still completely engrossed. As we see some pieces fall into place at the end, it’s also gratifying to know that these disparate plot lines will come together in a satisfying way eventually. Given Staveley’s last trilogy, I felt satisfied with this book as a solid introduction to where he is heading eventually.

The characters themselves also largely go through “beginning of the book” syndrome. In that, each of them spends the majority of the book having their understanding of themselves and how they exist in their world broken down piece by piece. This is, of course, necessary for many character arcs as it allows the story to then focus on the rebirth of a character into a new form. But unlike the traditional arcs we see play out in single works, like the plot, this book treats its character arcs as ones that span the entire serie. So a first book sees only the first steps in this process.

At times, it can feel like a bit much. It’s definitely not a fun read to see favorite characters go through existential crisis after existential crisis, regardless of how necessary it is for their ultimate growth. Gwenna, in particular, has a roller coaster of a ride, with some true highs alongside some very dark, lonely lows. However, again, towards the end of the book, we begin to see the direction these characters are headed in, and I have faith that their continued stories will retroactively justify some of the lows we experience with our characters here.

I really enjoyed this book. It was so exciting to be back in this world. The familiar characters and scenes were a joy to return to, and the expanded world and mythology felt like it perfectly slotted in with what we already new of this universe. The book is long and, at times, slow moving, but fans of the series will likely be so thrilled by a new entry that this slower pace just seems like an excuse to revel in the story. Fans of epic fantasy are sure to enjoy this, though, while it’s not necessary, I recommend reading Staveley’s other books first, particularly the first trilogy.

Rating 8: An excellent return to the world of the “Unhewn Throne,” though the book is definitely focused more on setting up the bigger story than in creating a self-contained plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Empire’s Ruin” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “The Empire’s Ruin” at the library using WorldCat!

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