Nathan‘s Empire of Exiles Book Review
Book One in the Books of the Usurpers Series
This Book is For You is You Like:
- Epic political fantasies
- Fantasy mysteries
- Multiple human-esque fantasy races
- Magical libraries and ancient artifacts
- Multi-POV books
This Book is Not For You if You are Looking For:
- A traditional “locked room” fantasy mystery
- Overly detailed worldbuilding with hordes of information
- A big, sprawling global epic fantasy
Twenty-seven years ago, a Duke with a grudge led a ruthless coup against the empire of Semilla, killing thousands. He failed. The Duke was executed, a terrifyingly powerful sorcerer was imprisoned, and an unwilling princess disappeared.
The empire moved on.
Now, when Quill, an apprentice scribe, arrives in the capital city, he believes he’s on a simple errand for another pompous noble: fetch ancient artifacts from the magical Imperial Archives. He’s always found his apprenticeship to a lawman to be dull work. But these aren’t just any artifacts — these are the instruments of revolution, the banners under which the Duke lead his coup.
Just as the artifacts are unearthed, the city is shaken by a brutal murder that seems to have been caused by a weapon not seen since the days of rebellion. With Quill being the main witness to the murder, and no one in power believing his story, he must join the Archivists — a young mage, a seasoned archivist, and a disillusioned detective — to solve the truth of the attack. And what they uncover will be the key to saving the empire – or destroying it again.
I had very few expectations going into this book. I’m not the biggest fan of the mystery genre and everything about the marketing about this book screamed “generic fantasy world” to me. Well, Erin Evans definitely proved me wrong in every way, and I absolutely devoured this book over a couple of sittings.
The novel takes place in a small country on an isthmus/peninsula behind a giant wall made of salt. There are evil magical creatures on the other side of the wall known as Changelings that can control people’s bodies, thoughts, and actions. They swept throughout the continent, ravaging chaos wherever they went. The survivors moved all moved behind the salt wall, giving their allegiance to their emperors. This conceit for a story is so clever and Evans uses it to its maximum potential. On one hand the existence of the Changelings creates a tangible feeling of paranoia and anxiety throughout the book. Have the Changelings crossed the wall? Who is good and who is bad? While reading I kept thinking that this book was like the White Walkers from A Song of Ice and Fire turned up the maximum speed because the Changelings are not only on the other side of the wall, they can literally control people like puppets.
Evans also uses her worldbuilding to explore the ramifications of all of the survivors coming in and forming a single nation (where the title of the book gets its name). Evans fills her book to the brim with people of different nationalities, ethnicities, races, and species. For example, one of the POV characters, Yinii, is a member of a species that has horns and a third eye that allows them to see in the dark. Evans world feels so complete and lived in because the setting is full of diverse people with different religions, worldviews, and philosophies.
I do want to point out that a lot of the worldbuilding in this book is quite passive. There are no info-dumps, and as the reader you have to put a lot of the pieces together on your own. This creates some confusion in the beginning as you try and follow what is happening in both the plot and the worldbuilding. In most cases this just par for the course in reading epic fantasy, but there are some of the ethnicities/nationalities that are thrown at you with such speed that they all just felt the “same” and I didn’t really make any attempts to separate the minor ones out. I would like to see this developed more in the sequels!
Empire of Exiles is also a multi-POV book, following four major characters, along with a couple of others in a series of flashbacks. The POVs are used well, and Evans nicely prevents the story from sprawling too much. Instead of the using the various POVs to expand the stories sprawl (a la Jordan or Martin), she instead uses them to give us four different perspectives on the one major single plot driving the narrative (that is, what is essentially a murder mystery). We get the perspectives of a young legal scholar, a magic user, a police detective, and a mysterious woman who is in charge of the Archives – the place where all of the cool stuff the exiled people brought with them behind the salt wall. The brief flashback chapters also intriguingly dripped information to add context to the present narrative, allowing Evans to continue to keep twisting the plot.
Evans has also imbued her novel with some interesting magic, although don’t go looking for an “all magic, all the time” kind of story. Other than the Changelings that I talked about earlier, there are some people who have specialized magical power over particular elements or substances (think things like copper, ink, bronze, wool, iron, etc.). The strength of their power cycles, and at its peak the magic can overwhelm the user. This puts the magic user into an extreme state in which they are of a danger to themselves and others. Because of this, individuals with powerful skills are sent to the Archives where they can be monitored (not necessarily in a really bad way, but in a “we need to keep everyone safe” kind of way). At the Archives, the magic users become specialists in order to help preserve and document the world’s many wonders that were brought with them during the Exile. The “Spiral” creates a lot of tension in the book since magic users are so powerful, but also so unstable. This creates a particularly tense climax to the novel for a few of the characters!
And yes, there are plot twists! I’m not a reader who tries to “predict” what will happen (I just like to be shocked!), and there were definitely some twists and turns that completely got me! And, unlike a lot of other twisty or other mystery fantasies, I never felt like the twists were unfair or unearned. They all make sense in the context of the story, characters, and setting.
One aspect of the series that I am intrigued to see develop is the tone and overall “purpose” of the story. As I stated above, Empire of Exiles is a fantasy mystery whodunnit. By the end of the novel, this mystery is solved and larger political and supernatural conflicts are brewing. Some authors/series nicely transition out of these growing pains to become something greater than the small, targeted plot of their first volumes, while other series grow and meander into stereotypical “good vs. bad” epic fantasies (while others, like Era 1 Mistborn lose their way before finding their footing again). With what Evans gave us here in this first book I have no doubts that she has awesome things in store for Quill, Yinii, Medea, Richa and the rest!
Erin Evans has written a propulsive fantasy mystery with subtle yet intricate worldbuilding and the promise of much bigger things to come in future books.