The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Thrown #1)

Book Reviews / Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

By: Brian Staveley
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Publisher: TOR Books

Rating: 5 out of 5.

With excellent world building, brilliant complex characters, and excellent plot pacing, The Empire’s Ruin is certainly among the finest in grimdark fantasy.  If you are a fan of Joe Abercrombie’s work, you will most certainly love The Empire’s Ruin. In summary, the story follows the arc of several characters in different story lines. First is former Annuran kettral Commander Gwenna Sharpe, disgraced from a mission gone horribly wrong, and sent on a voyage to find the nesting grounds of the enormous war hawks the Annuran’s use in battle. The next characters we meet are lovers Ruc and Biel, priests of the Goddess of Love, Eria. While they are priests, both hide a past they would rather not divulge. Finally, there is Akiil, an orphaned thief who becomes a Shin monk. While still a monk, he often goes back thievery and conning whoever he can, including the Annuran Empress. While it is grimdark fantasy, there is cursing, gore, torture, and violence, none of it is gratuitous. This is what makes good grimdark fantasy, when all of these elements are essential to the story but not there just to shock the reader.

Summary (from Goodreads)
The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used.
In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates.
But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir.

What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive.

The Pacing and Prose

The pacing, prose and plot of this book is so well done. While the focus will shift between chapters, the writing flows smoothly from one to other. Mr. Stavely brilliantly ends a point in the character’s story, then shifts to the next character. It is not confusing and the transitions are never abrupt. Instead, it leaves the reader on edge to find out what will happen next to each character.

World Building

The world building in The Empire’s Ruin is excellent and ranks among the best. While it does have cities with the typical elements of slums and the rich, there is much more that makes the world building so unique. The delta surrounding the city of Dombang serves as both a fortification for the city, and a danger for anyone who dares to enter. The land of Menkiddoc is perhaps the most interesting, killing most who venture there. It is the strong point of the world building in this book as the characters who venture there encounter horrors they could never imagine. As an Environmental Scientist, when world building encompasses ecosystems of any kind, it always fascinates me. Menkiddoc in particular was so well constructed. Despite the horrors that awaited the characters as they traversed the island, it all felt natural and organic. Everything they encountered felt as it should be there. Nothing was overdone to make it unbelievable. Menkiddoc was a brilliant creation by Mr. Staveley.

The Characters

The main characters, Gwenna Sharpe, Ruc, Biel and Akiil are well composed protagonists. They are far from perfect, which makes them interesting and wanting the reader to see their struggles and if they can overcome them. Gwenna has made disastrous decisions in her time as a kettral warrior. Ruc and Biel love each other, but they hide secrets from their past, fearing the reaction they will have for one another if they are revealed. Akiil is grew up as an orphan thief on the street of Dombang and he becomes a Shin monk. One can perhaps never truly leave their past behind, and he thieves and cons while a monk.
I would be remiss to not further mention the brilliant character of Gwenna Sharpe and what she endures throughout the book. She is tough, resilient and pushes through everything that is thrown at her. The only character they meet on the Menkiddoc is Rat. She has no family and barely speaks. She is “given” to Gwenna to take care of. Basically, they are both prisoners as the trek to find the birds continues. The interaction between Gwenna and Rat is some of the best character interaction in the book. I loved the two of them together.

Overall Thoughts

Mr. Stavely’s The Empire’s Ruin is grimdark fantasy at its finest. It encompasses all the elements of the genre and weaves them into a thrilling, page turning story from the first the start. While some parts can be brutal and at times hard to read, it flows with the story. The characters are flawed, and at times can be morally ambiguous, which is another characteristic of fine grimdark. It does not, however, make them less relatable. The world building has unique and fascinating elements. Overall, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for any fan of grimdark fantasy.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with and eBook Arc in exchange for an honest review.

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