TOP 100 REVIEWERon 6 September 2012
Somewhat unfairly in my view, this book has only attracted four reviewers, although this may be only "early days". The previous one in the Series (Ironroot) attracted double that number and the first one (Interregnum) twelve reviews. I was a bit surprised by this, to the extent that I found that this one was the best of the Tales of Empire so far. I don't know whether this is because the sense of novelty has somewhat faded or if this because relatively few reviewers venture into what seems to be a cross between fantasy and alternative history "à la Turtledove". It has certainly little to do with the author anyway, given that his more "mainstream" historical fiction Marius Mules series seems to be increasingly attractive. I was also somewhat surprised because I found this one to the best of the series so far. It allies the qualities that I had already appreciated in Interregnum with some additional pieces and twists that I particularly liked.
Again, setting the scene in Turney's fictional Empire which is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, allows the author a degree of liberty and originality that cannot be matched when writing historical fiction. In this volume, however, the focus is rather on the Empire's main rival, the Kingdom of Pelasia, and the Empire's Southern Provinces, instead of its heartlands, as in the first volume, or its northern borderlands, as in the second. There is also a rather interesting shift in the main characters which, this time, are three children from the Empire - two brothers and a girl from very modest backgrounds - that have to leave their border town, grow up during the Interregnum - the 20 plus period of civil war that rakes the Empire - and have quite different destinies.
Another point I particularly liked was the description of Akkad, the capital of the Kingdom of Pelasia. Again, Turnet has deliberately mixed up several elements. The city's name, and the use of bricks for its buildings, suggests Mesopotamia and Babylone. The description of the Palace and harem, of the King-God, the satrapes and the cataphractarii, seems inspired by a mix between Ancient Persia, Parthia and the Sassanids that replaced them. Interestingly however, the map provided for Akkad and its description, including the Mese (the main avenue that bisected the city in two) is in fact based on Constantinople.
Then there is the characterization itself, which is also interesting but where I had some reservations because the characters did not always "feel and sound" real tome. Asima is perhaps the richest character of the three. She becomes so utterly evil, megalomaniac, traitorous and murderous that I could not stop wondering at times if this was possible, whether she was crazy and how on earth nobody ever seems to bother murdering her. The personalities and deeds of the two brothers are also carefully designed, even if the features that either oppose them or divide them may sometimes appear a bit forced and a bit difficult to believe. One brother is duty bound and righteous, almost excessively so. The other is a bit of a scheming and ever resourceful rogue who seems able to plan everything in advance and never gets it wrong. There are a couple of other things that may require suspending belief, at times, such as the idea of having a faction of somewhat "moral" pirates. They are pirates, but "nice" pirates.
The plot also exhibits originality, including the end which was not what I had expected, especially given what I had seen in the two previous books. So, by and large, this is an author who has demonstrated his ability to come up with original settings and original plots for each of his books. There are perhaps a few things that can still be improved, although the attention to details - such as having the Imperial Governors' personal guards made up of soldiers coming from the Empire's far North (like the Emperor's German Guard under Augustus or, perhaps even better, the buccelarii of the 5th century AD in Rome and Constantinople) - is quite remarkable. Another nice touch was to provide maps, just as he had done for the two previous volumes.
My last comment is that there is a rather huge scope for further books on the Empire, with each new one showing as much diversity as the three first ones have. Up to now, we have had the fallen and guilty senior general turned mercenary in the Empire's heartlands in the first, the veteran cohort commander on the Northern Border in the second and the poor children of the Southern Provinces in the third. A fourth could perhaps be a biography of Emperor Darius himself, or perhaps of Avshar or of one of an Imperial Marshal, or a trader, or a Pelasian Satrap, or a high and noble born young man or young lady from the Empire or even a Northerner that joins the Imperial Army and gets posted the other side of the Empire. There is huge potential here, and I very much hope that we will see it unfold over the next few years.
This one is worth a very strong four stars. If it had been possible, I would have rated it 4.5 or 4.75 stars because I did find that it was even better than Interregnum. I hope I will be able to rate the next one five stars. From what I have seen and if the fourth is even better, this seems likely...