Book Review: The Empire’s Ghost by Isabelle Steiger
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (May 16, 2017)
Length: 432 pages
Author Information: Website
The Empire’s Ghost was a book that sounded right up my alley: an epic fantasy that touts a complex, multi-faceted story complete with a rich cast of characters and many points of view, not to mention the potential of a brand new setting filled with unique cultures and warring kingdoms—all set within a world where magic has once been lost but is ready to be found again. And indeed, it was a solid novel that delivered on all its promises, but it also had its share of stumbling blocks common to a lot of debuts—namely, that of trying to do too much.
The story opens on the empire of Elesthene, now just a ghost of its former glory. In the aftermath of the Ninist conquest, almost all traces of magic has been wiped clean from the world, leaving broken kingdoms behind to rebuild. However, it was only a matter of time until an ambitious leader like Imperator Elgar came to power and sought to create a new empire in his name, invading neighboring lands that have little hope of fighting back. In the kingdom of Reglay, young Prince Kelken clashes with his father on his idea for an alliance, refusing to risk his sister’s frail health in a political marriage. Meanwhile in Issamira, the richest and most powerful of the kingdoms, the royal succession is thrown into question following the disappearance of their crown prince. On the other hand, no such uncertainty exists in Esthrades where Lady Margraine has taken her father’s throne as his only heir—and is ruling with a determination to rival Elgar’s.
But far away from the royal courts and noble houses also stands the Dragon’s Head, an unassuming tavern tucked among the dank narrow streets of a rough and rundown Valyanrend neighborhood called Sheath. Its owner is a woman named Morgan Imrick who frequently gives shelter to the mercenaries and rogues in the area, and many of the regulars have become a group of friends. Not too many people in Sheath talk about their pasts, but when one of Morgan’s kitchen boys is arrested by the guard, certain difficult truths come to light. The Dragon’s Head crew inadvertently find themselves caught up in the tangled web of Imperator Elgar’s plans for domination, and are subsequently forced to carry out a special mission for him.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of perspectives involved, on account of the huge cast of characters. Normally, this would not be a problem—multiple POVs come with the epic fantasy territory, after all, and one of the advantages to writing a large cast is that you can quickly use them to create a rich and diverse new world. So, having a lot of characters in this genre is a good thing—but only if you don’t introduce them all at once. The first warning signs came early, when I felt I needed a dramatis personae to keep track of everyone in the prologue alone. It made getting into this novel difficult, mostly because so much of my energy was exerted towards trying to remember names without having to resort to building a spreadsheet.
With a large number of characters also comes a large number of plot threads. I enjoyed the story weaving Isabelle Steiger has done here, and by the end of the book I was really starting to appreciate how everybody and everything was coming together. Still, it took a long time for the big picture to come into focus, and while it was doing so, the narrative struggled to balance out the multiple plot lines. Some characters were parked for long periods of time, occasionally given short filler chapters (almost as if to remind us they still exist) while bigger, more important events were happening elsewhere. As the connections started to form, this also made some of the developments feel too convenient to be actually believable, what with all our key players encountering each other supposedly by chance in this vast empire.
Plus, in covering so many characters, the story may have spread itself too thin. Lady Margraine was probably the most fleshed out of everyone there, followed by perhaps Prince Kelken, while character development was disappointingly limited for the rest. Some, like Marceline, feel almost like a footnote. There were also others I would have liked to know better, like Elgar, especially since he is shaping up to be a formidable antagonist. Still, to the author’s credit, the characters that do stand out are superbly written. Lady Margraine, for all her irritating pomposity and claims to be bored, is a real force to be reckoned with and I am most excited with the future of her storyline. I’m sure the other characters and their individual plot threads will come to fruition in time, but for now, I find myself emotionally invested in only a few.
All told, The Empire’s Ghost is a solid entry into the epic fantasy genre and an admirable debut, though it does take bit of time and patience to realize the author’s vision for all her disparate characters and the great number of perspectives. The novel also has the distinct feel of an introduction, and a long one to be sure—many mysteries remain unsolved, and even with the big game changer close to the end, the final conclusion was underwhelming in the sense that no real resolution presents itself. That said, I will definitely be reading the next book, now that the basic setup for the series is complete. I expect the sequel will be throwing us straight into the action, and I’m looking forward to more revelations and answers.