(2017) Brian McClellan, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, v + 605pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50929-7
The modern world is a very strange place. Reality TV gets uglier, politics becomes bloodier, events become murkier. And through it all, we are still arguing about guns. Much of modern culture and history is shaped by them, and their role in the world is still under immense scrutiny. This, perhaps, is why we see so little of them in fantasy. The glamorization of firearms seems to have become less fashionable in recent years, andÖ
Sins of Empire is the first in a new series by Mcclellan, and the fourth in the world of the powder mages. Their gunpowder sorcery and incredible exploits are features slightly less in Sins Of Empire, but the new and returning characters who make up the rest of the cast are more than interesting and engaging enough to make up for it. The lack of detailed explanations for powder magic makes this book a poor starting point for newcomers, who should definitely start with the previous trilogy.
The three main characters in Sins of Empire include Michel, a "Blackhat" spy in the frontier city of Landfall, where most of the action takes place. Returning from the original trilogy are Vlora, now head of the Riflejack mercenary company, and Mad Ben Sykes, languishing in a labour camp after the disastrous end of his military career. The three of them each begin an orbit around each other that grows tighter and more dangerous with every passing chapter. The writing oozes tension and adrenaline, and one later chapter in particular is intoxicatingly daring, testament to the superb pacing.
The antagonists in Empire are both a point of concern and a great example of characterisation. Fidelis Jes is a ruthless sociopath and masterful warrior, leading the Blackhats with absolutely no mercy or hesitation in acting as he pleases. However, his motivations are not explored enough, and his arcís end is abrupt and much less harrowing for the protagonists than expected. A novella exploring his origins would be a wonderful addition to the Powder Mage universe. The elusive Mama Palo becomes a target for Vlora and Olem early on, as part of their contract to help suppress the native Palo population. As an antagonist, Mama Palo isnít actually seen doing much; she seems to represent the situation at hand, rather than any emerging threat. Nevertheless, the pursuit and discovery surrounding her whereabouts are probably the most interesting and engaging plot thread in the story, though the competition for that title is fierce thanks to the overwhelming number of narrative bombshells that begin to fall over the later two thirds of Sins of Empire.
In conclusion, Sins Of Empire is a brilliant opening for a new era in the Powder Mage universe, and will certainly appeal to flintlock fantasy fans, and returning readers of the previous trilogy. While not recommended for first-time fantasy readers due to its placement in the overall canon, fans of the Temeraire novels or Master and Commander will feel right at home with the setting.
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