A new grimdark fantasy for fans of Anna Smith-Spark, GRR Martin and Mark Lawrence.
The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.
General Bordan has a lifetime of duty and sacrifice behind him in the service of the Empire. But with rebellion brewing in the countryside, and assassins, thieves and politicians vying for power in the city, it is all Bordan can do to protect the heir to the throne.
Apprentice Magician Kyron is assigned to the late Emperor’s honour guard escorting his body on the long road back to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by his own people, even a magician’s power may fail when enemies emerge from the forests, for whoever is in control of the Emperor’s body, controls the succession.
Seven lives and seven deaths to seal the fate of the Empire.
It doesn’t happen too often but every now and then you get a book come along that just makes it hard to begin anything else. For me books like A Memory of Light, The Sword of Kaigen, The Burning White and Ruin have left me not reading for weeks or months even. Now days I don’t feel like I have that particular luxury anymore, I want to review books and that means I need to read books which means slumps aren’t allowed to exist. From now on these mental blocks will be laid siege too. Today’s review is on Seven Deaths of an Empire by G.R Matthews and it’s the book that beat that slump, it’s the trebuchet that flattened my mental block. This won’t be my prettiest review and I apologise off the bat because I think the story that GR Matthews wrote deserved a better reader. I struggled to get going with this, and that isn’t down to the book, purely my own mental incompetence.
Thank you to Rosie over at Rebellion Publishing for sending me an ARC of this incredibly beautiful book. I wish all paperbacks looked this good.
Seven Deaths of an Empire is a new epic fantasy series following the stories of Bordan, a general of the Empire and the man ultimately in control of its military, and Kyron, a young apprentice whose job it is to guard the body of the dead Emperor as he’s escorted home after campaigning in the North. Seven Deaths of an Empire is set in a world heavily inspired by our own historical period of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, we are brought into a world were the unstoppable might of the Empire continues to roll out from its capital, swallowing everything as it goes and bringing its own version of civilisation to the Tribes and peoples of the Forests. The Empire is heavily based on the Romans as we knew them, we have its Gladiators and Colosseums, its soldiers carry the same weapons, their armies building the same roads and following the same military strategies on the battlefield, and the Empire following the same tactics that made the Romans one of the most powerful empires in history. Even a lot of the lore we are given seems to mirror our own historical events quite well, the book having a considerable focus on religion that a lot of people theorise is a large part of why the Roman Empire eventually crumbled. The Tribes are a little less of an exact copy but share a lot of similarities with the Gaul and Germanic Tribes that the Romans fought and eventually conquered around 50bc. Even though Matthews has heavily sourced his story and ideas from our own history he has done incredibly well to make this world his own and I found myself loving the setting and changes that were made.
One of my only real criticisms of the book and not even a very large one is I felt we had barely scratched the surface this world that Matthews built. I really enjoyed the magic system that Matthews has built, it reminded me in part between a mixture of life magic similar to what we see in Paolini’s Inheritance Series and the channelling we all know from The Wheel of Time but yet felt new and original in a way. Magic is seen as “motes”, particles that are found in all living things are drawn from around the Magician and then are weaved into complex and fragile webs, Magicians having talents in different areas of magic and stronger Magician’s being able to form more numerous and stronger webs. We saw quite a few uses for this in some inventive ways, webs being built that could detect lies, battle magic and even wards that help preserve a body from rotting. This I felt was a soft magic system, there was no real limitation on what could be done as it seemed to be scaled more from the users own imagination and quick thinking. It definitely also seems like the Empires power starts to decline its knowledge is slipping away with it, I do not believe we’ve fully seen the extent of what can be done, and I can’t wait to see what we might get in the next book.
“Only the minute specks of magic remained, passing through and bouncing off all that surrounded him. They were everywhere, in everything, a million tiny flies buzzing past his ears, a billion minuscule stars wheeling around the sky. They called to him and he to them, commanding, cajoling, explaining, demanding, and controlling.
This was magic. This was where he existed.“
The Tribes themselves seemed such a massively unspoken part of the story and it led to a lot of frustration, I want to learn so much more about them and the broader world outside of the Empire itself. We do get a little look into one of the villages part way through the book and all it did was flare up my curiosities further. I feel I understood why Matthews decided to leave out so much lore, it seems to mirror the characters ignorance to the world and cultures around them, it means we have to be a part of Kyron’s lack of understanding and learn alongside him as he has the world and truth start to open up to him. So even though I consider it a criticism, I believe it is there for a purpose and will give us a much more exciting book two as we find out a ton of new info. So instead of a criticism, it should be more of a frustration?
Seven Deaths of an Empire is a two person POV story which was right up my alley, alternating chapters between Bordan and Kyron which I loved because it never meant we had long to wait when we had those little end of chapter cliff-hangers that authors love so much. It took me a while to really fall in love with either of these two, this was in part because of the mental blocks Ive previously mentioned, but I also didn’t feel that these two characters were really fleshed out till we really got into the book. Once Matthews got going we ended up getting a lot of depth and complex motivations behind both, Bordan and Kyron both being incredibly well written towards the end with a lot of focus on what drove them to make the choices they make, plenty of situations that left them questioning their beliefs and a lot of tough choices to be made. I ended up invested enormously in both of these characters particularly loved the progression that we saw with Kyron as the book went on, Matthews doing a wonderful job of writing a youngsters naivety to the real world and a realistic look at what happens when you are introduced to things that questions those lifelong beliefs that you’ve held.
“Bordan almost took a step back in surprise. There was a heat rising from the young woman’s skill, almost too hot to touch and Bordan could feel the heavy pulse of blood running through her arms. Grief tore at your mind, he knew that, and gave free rein to base emotions. Some raged and spat at the world. They would shout and fight, attack with words those closest to the. Eventually, they would calm, and relation would come crashing down with a hot wave of crushing sadness. Later, they would raise their heads, emotions spent, and carry on, the hole in their heart scarring over but never truly free of the pain.“
I may have struggled to be drawn into the two main characters, but I quickly fell in love with Matthews supporting cast, both Bordan and Kyron were surrounded by characters I enjoyed reading about and spent much of the book wishing to see more of them. Emlyn was my favourite character of the entire story and definitely the first character I actually found myself loving, brimming with attitude, and making me laugh out loud at moments, I thought she was incredibly well written, and I feel she will have a much larger role to play in coming books which is a very exciting prospect. I also had some genuine anger and frustrations towards the Royal Family and people such as Livillia, Matthews wrote characters I would struggle not to slap if I stood in the same room as them, and Ive always believed that if an author can make me feel some rage or anger, they’ve done an incredible job.
One thing that really stunned me as the book went on was how beautifully Matthews did with writing the fight scenes, even though battle and bloodshed wasn’t at the forefront of this book the bits we got were thrilling, Matthews has a natural ability to write fights that many authors struggle with. The Roman setting isn’t something new in fantasy and most will have some knowledge on how they fought, but I grew up watching shows like Time Commanders and playing games such as Rome Total War, I love the way ancient civilisations fought and the Romans were geniuses on the battlefield, Matthews managed to transport me into that shield wall, he made me hear the call for heavy Pila’s as they were thrown from the back lines to find purchase in the bodies of my foes, and he set the rhythm to the fight that found us taking that one step forward, grinding away at our enemies bit by bit . I could read Matthews battle scenes every day and be a happy man.
“An axe rising into the air, the suns light scattering from its chipped edge. A whisper of air and a cry of effort as a shield met the blow and shattered. Splinters pinwheeling through the air and sudden lack of weight on his arm. Gladius stabbing forward, driven by training and instinct. A gap opening in the line ahead. A soldier falling and stumbling over the injured man, desperate to keep his shield high and sword in tight. Moving into the gap and slamming the shield forward to create room, peering over the top, wary of an attack. Heavy armour and biting pain at the base of your neck where the helmets rim met flesh. Sweat pouring down your face, under your cheek guards, and hot breath burning lungs as each precious gasp powered you forward.“
A quick final shoutout to Matthews on his writing, I was a big fan of his prose and writing style in general. His writing was unpretentious and never felt unnecessary, but out of nowhere he would smack you with this beautifully written sentence that struck to your core. I find this sort of writing so much more impactful sometimes because when you get to that incredible prose they are really elevated and give pause. His chapter structure was also something I loved and something I’m always grateful for. I always love a wonderfully short chapter that doesn’t waste any time, they break up the story so well, every page giving you what was needed, when it was needed without that horrible pain you are normally left with at the end of an exciting chapter.
Seven Deaths of an Empire isn’t outrageously different, it isn’t a new take on the fantasy genre, and it isn’t leading the pack in diversity, but it is a superbly written grimdark story and a classic feeling epic fantasy that reminded me of reading authors like Raymond E Feist and David Farland, its exciting at every turn with a wonderfully spun plot that keeps you guessing the entire time and Matthews has written a book that I really hope and believe has opened up a much vaster and even more exciting series to come. I can’t wait for book two, Silencing of the North.
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