Our best of 2019 list is out, but that doesn’t mean 2019 is done giving us fantastic reads. We always roll December releases over into the next year in order to get the list out, and it can sometimes result in the powerful end-of-year releases not getting the accolades they deserve until the following year. This is one of those instances. Brian McClellan released Blood of Empire this week, his third and final installment of The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, and it has likely already earned itself a spot on our 2020 best-of list. This is a fantastic conclusion to an already great trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with this series you should read my reviews of the first two books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire. But, if you are here to find out how McClellan ties up his second trilogy in this magic world then I have some good news for you.
The Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy has an…interesting…structure. In a good way. To me, it seems to eschew the traditional set-up for a trilogy of an introduction first book, bridge second book, and climactic final third book. Instead, Sins of Empire was a powerful introduction book but McClellan jumped straight to a powerful climax in Wrath of Empire, skipping the bridge. This left space for Blood of Empire to be something a bit different. While the book does have a fantastic final climax, it also focuses more on the aftermath of battles and the cleanup that often goes unmentioned. The series usually pulls me in with its epic scale, but I found myself drawn into the politics surrounding the deployment of foreign armies, recovery of soldiers with PTSD, and how war strains relationships. They were all fresh takes on the genre that drew kept the series exciting by upending my expectations for a concluding book in a trilogy.
While there is a lot to praise here, the greatest strength of Blood is its characters. I have always enjoyed McClellan’s talent for writing interesting characters, and he’s only getting better at it. This series has a fantastic cast of POVs; Vlora, Styke, and Michel are all deep characters with vivid personalities and clear strengths and weaknesses. Oddly, the three leads spend almost zero time interacting with one another in the entire series, and it is almost like reading three entire independent stories that create echos that affect one another. However, the three narratives create this beautiful balance that makes the books a very easy and fun read – always switching up the prose and style of the story every chapter keeping you fresh. Although the entire series has strong character stories, Blood takes things up a notch by focusing on how each of the three leads overcomes their own weaknesses. Without going into detail to avoid spoilers, each of the POVs finds themselves in new surroundings with a job that demands skills they are terrible at. Styke has to be diplomatic and level headed, Michel has to be courageous and honest, and Vlora has to be trusting and learn to delegate. Each of the leads is awful at these things, and the book is a case study in how they struggle to improve, avoid, or think around their own flaws. It makes for a book with some truly memorable character growth and a kick-ass ending that I would recommend to anyone.
There are a number of other positives about Blood of Empire. The combat continues to be exciting. McClellan has done a fantastic job of balancing returning characters from his first trilogy and fun new faces. We get to see a new continent and part of McClellan’s very well developed world. In keeping with the more challenging themes, McClellan put a lot of effort into humanizing or at least digging into the mentality of the “enemy” in the series – which I liked a lot. There is an astounding level of detail in his worldbuilding and I definitely think that McClellan could just keep making new series in this universe and they wouldn’t get old for a while. The mysteries and plots of the series as a whole all come to satisfying and emotional conclusions. The only real criticisms of Blood of Empire are that the pacing could sometimes feel slightly uneven, especially in Vlora’s POV. Sometimes the book could feel like it was stalling in flight as the chapters dragged along and other times I felt like they were moving way too fast and I wasn’t getting enough time to luxuriate in major character or story moments.
I really liked Blood of Empire. It does an excellent job capping off a fun and thoughtful trilogy that significantly expanded McClellan’s world in positive ways. The structure of the final book alone makes it a worthwhile read, and the book feels particularly topical to today’s world events in ways that I couldn’t get into to avoid spoilers. If you are holding out on this series after reading Powdermage, are even slightly curious about ‘flintlock fantasy’, or are looking for a good story with excellent character growth – I recommend you pick up this series ASAP.
Rating: Blood of Empire – 9.0/10