Wrath of Empire – The Best Kind Of Identity Crisis

This week I have returned to Brian McClellan’s series, Gods of Blood and Powder, to talk about the soon to be released second book – Wrath of Empire. The numeration of the series is starting to feel a little confusing, as this is the second book in the second series and the fifth book overall. However, the important thing to know is that Wrath of Empire continues both the story from, Sins of Empire right where it left off and continues to pull in the story of the original Powder Mage Trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with either the original books, or Sins of Empire, than this review is not for you and I am about to immediately launch into spoilers – but you can check out my reviews for both in the links. I moved the picture lower this week to specifically to keep you from reading spoilers in the next paragraph. For those of you who are still here, let’s talk about the war for Fatrasta.

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So, we left off in Sins with the Dynize empire rolling into town in force, our protagonists Vlora and Ben on the run to find the godstones, and Michel hiding in a hole hoping he doesn’t get murdered by his fellow blackhats. With the twist of Taniel’s return out in the open McClellen felt like he had a lot more freedom to kick up the plot development and things get moving fast. Michel is stuck inside Fatrasta with absolutely no back up, being hunted by every possible side. Vlora is on the move with Ben and a train of refugees and two different armies on her tail – both bigger in size. And Ben Styke… well Ben is a psychopath who just wants to murder people. That is where we pick up the plot and it takes off like a gunshot and never slows down. Michel quickly meets up with Taniel and agrees to try and sabatoge the Dynize invades from within, while Vlora and Ben split up to go after the two remaining godstones. The book continues to pull in old friends from the previous series to my extreme joy and I can’t wait to see who shows up next.

Pretty much everything I like from book one is still here in force. In the first review I mentioned the similarities between inspector Adamat in the first series and Michel in the latter, but the more I spend with Michel the more I reject that comparison and have come to love him. In the landscape of gods, generals, and warriors shaping the world around them – he is just a man trying to survive and help his people with his limited talents, and he is easily the most empathetic character in the story. It also helps that he feels like he is on every side in the conflict, leading a voice to all the players no matter how small. In Wrath of Empire, his infiltration to the Dynize brings them to life and shows an incredibly complex and interesting culture. His voice in the book is the driving force in moving the conflict from black and white to grey and he has steadily become my favorite character in the series.

That doesn’t mean that Ben and Vlora aren’t seeing their own growth. Ben spends a large portion of Wrath reconciling who he was with who he has become, and where his ideal person is in that range. He starts a revenge quest for people who betrayed him in the middle of the book, and I was honestly surprised and moved with the way it turned out. His inner journey is very well done and I found myself looking inwards as well as he contemplated who he wanted to be. On the other hand, Vlora knows who she wants to be but finds herself having trouble stepping up into that role. Her growth as a character is much more subtle than the other two, but no less important as she slowly decides how she feels about her adoptive father and brother and becomes a better leader. Overall, Wrath of Empire is about people figuring out who they are at a time in their lives where different external factors demand them to be different people. It is a really good piece of self identity while also having all the kick ass plot and action that I have come to expect of Brian McClellen.

In terms of negative, there was really only one complaint I had about Wrath of Empire. An important but difficult thing to do in books is to make sure that you create events that steer the plot in the direction you need without making it look like you are steering. Events in a book should feel like they happened naturally, not because an author needed to set up plot points. When you can see the “author’s hand” it breaks immersion and can be really jarring. While I have had this problem with Brian’s writing occasionally in the past, it never showed up once in Sins of Empire. Unfortunately, that is less true in Wrath with a couple scenes being egregious offenders. The worst I can think of is a moment that Taniel and Vlora arrive in a town together to hunt a godstone. Due to Taniel’s immense power at this point in the series, I suspected that Brian would need to find a way to “occupy” him while Vlora hunted for the stone – because Taniel’s strength would make solving most problems trivial which doesn’t make for good writing. What I didn’t expect was Taniel to “accidentally murder” two people within the first five minutes of being in the town, and then get thrown in jail for the exact amount of time they had to search for the stone. It was just a little too transparent. There were a couple moments like this in Wrath that sucked me out of the story, but overall they didn’t even dent my enjoyment of book two.

Wrath of Empire has flawlessly completes the baton pass of excellence from Sins of Empire and has helped Gods of Blood and Powder eclipse the already stellar Powder Mage Trilogy. The action is exciting, the plot is gripping, and the themes are deep and thought provoking. You can’t ask much more of Wrath of Empire, and it is going to be one of the strongest books of 2018.

Rating: Wrath of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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Sins Of Empire – Feels Like A Sequel

28811016We have something called the “20% rule” here at The Quill to Live. We believe that a sizable number of authors simply don’t know how to start a book. It is the single most common issue we find with novels; authors have great ideas and prose but just don’t know how to get the story moving from page one. This birthed the “20% rule”, we never give up on a book until we have read at least 20%, as many books take off after the initial build up. This rule sparks a lot of discussion with the team on what I would consider a GOOD introduction for a comparison point, and whenever I am asked this I always say “anything by Brian McClellen”. This long winded introduction is simply to bring up that Brian McClellen is one of the punchiest, exciting, and fun writers I have read – and his recently concluded Powder Mage Trilogy is a real bang (reviewed here). This year Brian has launched a brand new spin off series in a different part of the world, but it isn’t a sequel…

… or so he says but I am actually going to disagree. Brian if it look, talks, and feels like a sequel, it is probably a sequel. Brian’s first book in his new trilogy, Sins of Empire, is a new chapter on a new continent with a newish cast – but for those of you looking for more of the story from the first trilogy you will definitely get your fill. The first trilogy ends at the culmination of a major war that almost destroyed the country of Adro. Tired of a war that spanned multiple books, the side characters Vlora and Odem from the first trilogy decide to take a mercenary army and travel to the frontier of civilization to seek employment. Once there they quickly become embroiled in local politics and revealing anymore would be spoilery.

Sins of Empire is a really interesting book to review, because McClellen has both grown as an author tremendously – but also feels like he should get a little more out of his comfort zone. First the bad: the POV structure of Sins of Empire is identical to The Powder Mage Trilogy (three POVs – a general, a warrior, and a spy). I would have liked to see Brian mix up his cast a little more, but despite retreading old ground he has shown enormous improvement. Brian’s first trilogy had an incredible plot, but it showed clear signs of being made up as he went. The books had this lingering feeling that Brian thought of amazing plot elements he wanted to incorporate, but always thought of them a little too late. This resulted in some confusing pacing of the plot and a few aggressive advancements of character development to catch them up to the rest of the cast. Brian clearly learned a lot from this because Sins of Empire has none of these issues. The book has some of the best pacing I have ever read (and he still knows how to start a novel with a bang), and the intrigue surrounding what is going on almost resulted in me finishing the book in one sitting. Sins is one of the most exciting books I have read this year and the ending left me begging for more.

While I made negative comments about Brian not expanding the cast a bit, I actually love his new trio. Vlora, the adoptive daughter of Tamas from the first series, has been wonderfully fleshed out and is a joy to read about. Likewise, Michel and Styke both bring a lot of fresh perspective to their roles and it took me about 30 pages to get attached to all of them. The location for the book is a place previously talked about in the first trilogy. The world building in Sins does a great job both giving you more information on past books while also bringing an entire new location to life. The city of Landfall where most of the story takes place is a captivating place with a very cool culture. I was a big fan of the roses that demarcate rank in the government roles as well as Brian’s inventive ghettos in the Greenfire Depths. Sins is the perfect blend of old and new, quenching my thirst for more of the plot from books 1-3 and building an entirely new platform to launch a new story from.

Sins of Empire blew my expectations out of the water and I am so excited to see Brian fix issues I had with his first series. The Powder Mage Trilogy is one of my favorite series despite its narrative and pacing problems, but Sins is on an entirely different level. If you enjoyed his first trilogy, if you want to check out a great flintlock fantasy, if you just enjoy great books it would be an…empire-sized sin…for you to miss this new series from Brian McClellan.

Rating: Sins of Empire – 10/10