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The Empire's Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, Book 1)

The Empire's Ruin, Brian Staveley

I am a new reader of Brian Staveley’s work. I regret to admit I had not seen his previous trilogy when it hit the shelves and haven’t read it yet, though it is on my to-read list now. I can’t recall where I picked up The Empire’s Ruin, and I can’t remember when, though it was only published in 2021.

If you are someone who is tired of the same tropes of rolling hills and forests hiding the fantasy epic you are seeking, then this is a good spot to stop and have a read. The writing is evocative of place, something hard to do. Instead of forests and rolling green hills, we are given two stories running side by side: sea travel and a swamp land, designed as if the worst of Venice had sunk into a quagmire.

Dombang, the core city in which this portion of the tale takes place, is terrifying. They worship death and laud horrible ways to die. It’s a city replete with bodies floating in the canals, constant combat, little trust, and plenty of intrigue and murder. Moreover, they know for certain, as does the reader, that their gods are real and walk those swamps if you know how and where to look.

Culture follows to a fair degree from these feelings of location. What buildings are made of, how religion operates, what is important to people, and the conflicts they have stem organically from what is set up as the background. This worldbuilding is at its best, as it is in service to the story, not just for the fun of it.

The story also hinges around the core concept that has shaped empires for centuries: speed of travel. Portals and flight, now both lost to a dying empire, must be rediscovered, or the empire will die. Imagine if Rome lost her roads, or a modern empire its telecommunications.

To tell this tale, we get to follow along with several superpowered characters, but despite their powers, the risks they take feel real, and their wants and needs feel genuine.

Ashes of the Unhewn Throne was a book I needed to find, as I have been very disappointed in many science fiction and fantasy books I have picked up of late. Gwenna Sharpe, our Kettral (massive bird) flying superstar, is a perfect mix of powerful, broken, badass, and trying to rebuild herself, as every hero needs. Through her arc, he masterfully, if somewhat self-evidently, uses clear “yes, but” or “no, and” storytelling structures to heighten the tension throughout the story.

Some people say you have to have read previous books to pick up this one, and when I get to the earlier ones, that may be true, but I can confidently say it caught my attention and drew me in on its own, without needing anything more.

It was the book I needed right now. It’s the book we all deserve. (4.5/5.0)

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