Warning… this is a page turner.
You may find yourself reading this at the wee hours of the morning, thinking, just one more page.
Like a literary version of the TV show 24, the chapters have a way of leaving you on either a cliff-hanger or on the verge of a new discovery.
All my reviews are spoiler free, but I do give a short a blurb – something similar to what you’ll see on the back of the book – just so I can discuss the concept and world. This only goes into events in the first couple of chapters.
The Emperor is dead.
The amulet that he wears must be given to his son, Prince Alhard, before he can be crowned… The only problem is that the Emperor has died far away from the capital.
General Bordan orders a cohort of soldiers to escort the body home, through a forest where thousands of newly conquered barbarians live. A magician and his master travel with the cohort, using their magic to preserve the body of the dead emperor.
The journey is fraught with danger, not only from the hostile barbarians, but also from the scheming Dukes of the capital. For whoever has the amulet is the new Emperor – and not everybody wants Prince Alhard in charge of an Empire.
And so there we are – a great premise – and two fantastic POV characters to follow.
The General, who tries to protect Prince Alhard, and his sister, Princess Aelia, from the dangers of court. And a magician apprentice, Kyron, who is learning how to use his magic as he protects the body of the dead Emperor.
We also have a great supporting cast. Religious zealots, a spoilt royal family, slimy dukes, and a barbarian tracker with questionable loyalties.
I enjoyed both POV characters and they were both different enough to give their chapters a distinctive flavour. Themes of loyalty, the meaning of empire, of peace and freedom are explored, but not in a preachy way. This isn’t a book that lets itself get bogged down in lengthy expositions and both sides of the argument are observed by the main characters.
In terms of setting, this is based on the Roman Empire. The link is very tangible. In fact, I don’t even remember the name of the capital, in my mind it’s just Rome.
I love historical fantasy and I love this era of history in particular, so I found this actually quite immersive. I felt like I knew what the city looked like, as well as the northern forests that the cohort must march through to get home. For those wanting a unique setting, this perhaps won’t satisfy, though there is enough to differentiate it for someone who doesn’t mind.
I would also add that the magical system is NOT based on the pagan gods of the Roman Empire and the main religion of ‘The Flame’ isn’t the same as Christianity. These both give another layer of differentiation.
The chapters weave together really well. At times you know trouble is coming before the character does, at other times you know a character has just lied because of something you’ve discovered from the other perspective. There is also a mystery to unfold. At the start of every chapter there is a short extract. Who is the boy? Who is his grandfather? This mystery is linked to the narrative and at the end everything comes together. As I have mentioned, the pace is brisk, and once we get to the last 1/3 it moves very rapidly. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had a story move me along at this speed, and I enjoyed that. I’m usually in the “character-driven” camp when it comes to books, but I found this had enough of that to sustain the more plot-driven sequences.
There were also some shocking twists. On two occasions I was very sure I knew where the story was heading, only to have the opposite happen. This again really elevated the story and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.
Overall this is a great debut. I’d say it will be a hit for fans of The Last Kingdom and Simon Scarrow – as well as those who have enjoyed historical influenced fantasy like Game of Thrones or Blood Song.
Thanks for reading! A big thanks to Netgalley and Rebellions Publishing for providing the arc. This book is out on the 24th June – a great summer read!
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