“The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.” So reads the tagline to G.R. Matthews’ book Seven Deaths of an Empire, a new fantasy novel set in an unnamed land based loosely on the Roman Empire. And when we say ‘loosely’ we mean bread, circuses, crucifying people and literally having a river called the Rubicon.
The story is told from the viewpoints of two main characters. On the one hand is General Bordan, a veteran with a lifetime of service, command and battle behind him, who helps to hold the city and the Empire together now that the Emperor is dead. The other is Apprentice Magician Kyron, young and still naïve in the ways of the world, convinced of the rightness of the Empire’s actions as they enforce their particular brand of civilisation on the “savage” tribes of the forests. He’s helping to escort the body of the Emperor back to the city, making sure it stays, uhm, fresh and that nobody makes off with the amulet that is the symbol of the Emperor’s power and the one thing that guarantees the succession.
Nothing goes entirely according to plan, of course, and in short order the General finds himself struggling with not-so-subtle power plays from the ruling nobles, plots to derail the succession and assassins hiding in every shadow, while Kyron and his master Padarn struggle to even make it back to the city alive as the local tribes take offense to the Empire trying to conquer their lands and set out to murder every last one of them.
Each chapter switches between these two main characters, using them to fill in our understanding of this new world. Bordan is our window into the heart of the Empire and all that goes on there, while it’s through Kyron’s initial ignorance and naivety we learn about the wider world as he learns that not everyone is a big fan of the Empire and not everyone agrees with their religion or beliefs.
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My initial impressions of the book weren’t great. I struggled with the first half dozen chapters, I wasn’t really invested in the story, Kyron seemed like a whiny little so-and-so, the Emperor’s family weren’t all that interesting, and Bordan himself had some… odd motivations. But as I kept reading, I got more and more invested until I was devouring the pages as fast as I could. It’s also been a long time since a book made me swear out loud in horror at what I’d just read. The book it put me most in mind of was Raymond E. Feist’s tome of a novel – Magician. While not quite as intimidating or dense as that one, Magician was another story that I had to come back to repeatedly before it really hooked me in. Seven Deaths is a book that will reward patience and a little perseverance with the early story.
This is a book that will appeal to folks who like their fantasy a little darker, a little more grounded in the realities of life rather than grand, sweeping plots about high magic and the fate of the world. While there is magic here, it’s used for all manner of terribly mundane things like making sure food doesn’t spoil while the army is on the march rather than summoning beings of infinite cosmic power! This is a story about politics, faith, betrayal and the loss of innocence, likely to appeal to fans of Mr R.R. Martin’s now-infamous Game of Thrones series, as well as the aforementioned Mr Feist, and I for one will be eagerly looking forward to a sequel.
Seven Deaths of an Empire is out now from Solaris.