by Brian Staveley
This was my most anticipated book of 2021 and somehow it still blew my expectations out of the water.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Staveley is a fantasy writer at the peak of his powers. Every time I read one of his books, I look back at all the others I’ve given five stars to lately and subtract a star from every one of them.
He sets the bar that high.
He sets the bar so high that I have no problem waiting however long it takes for him to release a new book. It’s been roughly four years since Skullsworn came out, and while I know a lot of readers complain about these gaps, I have zero angst about it in the case of Staveley. Maybe that’s because up until now, he was somehow cranking one of these behemoths out every year. Or maybe it’s because I’m an author myself. I read The Empire’s Ruin, and after I finished it, I thought, “LOL, four years? It would have taken me ten to come up with something half as good as this.”
I’m not being mean to myself here. He and I write in different genres and our styles aren’t nearly the same. Also, he’s better than me. I’m not fishing for compliments or putting myself down. He’s just plain better, and I am not only super okay with that, but thrilled by it, because it gives me something to look forward to. Also, it makes me want to improve, and I’m one of those competitive assholes who needs that in my life.
But enough about my ego. Let’s talk about this book.
“There were times to lie low, to watch and wait, to play the long game. And then there were times when you needed to light the world on fire and watch it explode.”
In this world, there is an elite force of fighters who fly into battle on the wings of warhawks the size of city buses. The birds, which the soldiers are named after, are called Kettral. The Kettral troops have several memorable sayings, but one stuck in my mind while reading this: goatfuck.
Simply put, a goatfuck is what happens when all your carefully laid plans blow up in your face and the mission goes to complete shit. That is what we dive into with this book. It’s how it opens. It’s how it progresses. It’s even a great reflection of the empire the Kettral serve. Half a decade has passed since the events of the first trilogy in this series, and Annur is collapsing.
We see this collapse through three different narratives. Akiil shows us the capital of the empire and the desperation of its emperor. Ruc shows us a rebellious city one riot away from tearing itself apart. And Gwenna, oh, Gwenna. She shows us everything it is to be human.
When I first saw the cover for this and the figure with the flaming red hair on it, I knew she’d play a pivitol role. My initial review was this:
Gwenna Sharpe. She’s something of a legend in my household. I made my husband read these books, and he loves her just as much as I do, so much that he named his main character in World of Warcraft after her.
That’s true love, ya’ll.
I’ve been low-key obsessed with her since I first laid eyes on her in The Emperor’s Blades, when she was nothing but a wise-cracking, tough-as-nails demolitions troop with hidden depths. And now, well, with this installment, Staveley cemented her as my favorite female lead of all time. I don’t even… fuck, how do I talk about her? How do I explain how multifaceted she is? How strong? How vulnerable? How human?
I don’t often struggle with words, but in the case of this character, I can’t say anything, because you just need to read the damn books to understand.
Speaking of which, READ THE BOOKS. Not just the first trilogy, but also Skullsworn. It introduces you to the city that a third of this book is set in. I mean, Staveley does a great job explaining it all in a way you could grasp if you skip Skullsworn but I still recommend reading it to really get a good understanding of what you’re walking into, as well as learning the origin story of one of the key characters.
So by this part of the book review, you’re probably wondering what the hell takes place within it. I’d love to tell you. To dive into the intricacy of the plot. The thievery and skullduggery and swashbuckling hijinks of these characters. But it releases the day I’m posting this review, and, my god, the spoilers are REAL, friends. Also, it’s over 800 pages long and if I start to dig into the meat of it, this review will become the length of a thesis paper.
I’ll tease you instead.
The empire is falling apart. A stealth mission turns into a goatfuck. A thieving monk gets in way over his head. A boy raised by bloodthirsty gods finds himself fighting for his life in an arena while a city implodes around him. Creatures of myth and legend still stalk the world. And the battle for supremacy hinges on an impossible mission to plunge into a dark, diseased continent and retrieve an object that could save Annur from ruin.
I know we’re only halfway through the year, but I’m going to go ahead and call it now: