Audiobook Review: Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
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 (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Empire of the Vampire
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (September 14, 2021)
Length: 27 hrs and 10 mins
Narrator: Damian Lynch
Jay Kristoff has called Empire of the Vampire the best book he’s ever written, and while my Mia Corvere loving heart might have a thing or two to say about that, I do have to admit it’s probably his most epic and impressive. It’s also a doorstopper of a novel, heavy both literally and figuratively, so be sure you have the time, ideal mood and mental resolve before starting this very dark, very nihilistic tale of vampires and vendettas.
Our hero of the hour is Gabriel de León, a famed monster hunter from the holy Silver Order dedicated to protecting the world from the creatures of the night. But that was a long time ago, and now Gabriel is the last of his kind—a silversaint, or a half-human and half-vampire hybrid sworn to the Church. Their enemies are the coldbloods, or full-blood vampires, who have overcome their defenses ever since the darkness fell twenty-seven years ago, building a vast empire with the end goal of snuffing out the last vestiges of humanity. Now their ruthless leader has captured Gabriel and imprisoned him, forcing him to answer to his crimes. But first, he must also be made to tell his story, so that his life can be chronicled for posterity before he is executed.
As the vampire empress’ historian Jean-François arrives at Gabriel’s prison cell, our silversaint begins recalling his tortured life in an expansive narrative full of love, hatred, violence and death. Before he became the most fearsome hunter in his brotherhood of monster killers, Gabriel was an awkward child growing up in a troubled home, knowing deep down there was something different about him, from his early fixation with blood to certain other uncanny abilities that manifested as he got older. As a young man, he finally came to learn the truth, which ultimately led him to the Silver Order where he trained like all initiates did before he became a legend. As we progress through the different phases of Gabriel’s life, we see him travel to exotic new places, encounter unique and interesting folk, survive all kinds of deadly challenges. Eventually, he crosses paths with a group of desperate travelers seeking to bring light into the world again, joining them on a quest for that which represents humanity’s last hope: the Holy Grail.
At over 750 pages in print and 27 hours in audio, Empire of the Vampire is a whopper, and as you would expect with a book this size, not all of it is focused or engaging. The way the story is framed, there is also a lot of jumping around in time. However, the setup should be a familiar one for epic fantasy fans, following in the tradition of books like The Name of the Wind where a protagonist recounts their life story to a chronicler, or even a subtle tribute in some ways to Interview with the Vampire, obviously apropos here for many reasons. The story probably needn’t have been so long, but ambitious ideas require ambitious designs, as they say, so we needed to begin at the beginning.
To be fair, the parts exploring Gabriel’s early life were some of my favorites, and they were also some of the most necessary, establishing background information for the character as well as the setting’s history and lore. The world-building is immersive and stunning, but also quite bleak and terrifying. Kristoff allows the details to emerge organically, weaving Gabriel’s childhood into the world’s dreary, blood-soaked past. We find that our protagonist’s life is intimately intertwined with the history of the darkness and vampires, and much of the novel’s early intrigue is in the way his origins are revealed.
But as much as the author likes to remind us Empire of the Vampire is an adult novel filled with gory violence, naughty smut, and bad language, it’s almost as if his young adult fiction roots can’t help coming through, because young Gabriel is also a whiny, belligerent, melodramatic Gabriel. It isn’t until he is older and more mature that his worldview becomes more complex, examining in depth his relationship with his duty and faith. But even so, his mental constitution remains pretty jaded and angsty, as he continuously struggles with the nature of those subjects and the grim sacrifices he’s had to make for those beliefs.
The greatest change comes much later in the book when Gabriel meets Dior and the gang, and personally my favorite parts are the first and final quarters of the novel, because like bookends of strength, they provide the best and most memorable moments. Kristoff is always wonderful when it comes to character relationships, and one of his greatest strengths is writing snappy dialogue and banter, and rest assured you will find plenty of humor and cleverness here.
If you love the author’s books, I think you will be quite delighted with Empire of the Vampire, its darker and more adult undertones notwithstanding. Newcomers to his work, however, might consider starting with something a little less heavy and meandering. The scope of this novel is certainly vast and impressive, but I don’t think it is quite as good at showcasing Kristoff’s talents. I feel there are better examples of his skills as a storyteller that are less bloated, more entertaining and evenly paced.
Still, Empire of the Vampire is a great read once you’re well invested. The creative process behind this novel was clearly an important next step for Jay Kristoff as a writer, and whatever you may feel about this book, it is a huge epic project the likes we haven’t seen from the author before. It’s definitely something awe-inspiring, and in spite or because of its massive scale and breadth, there’s plenty in the story to enjoy.
Audiobook Comments: Diehard visual junkies might want to stick with the print edition which comes with illustrations, but for those who don’t mind getting just the auditory experience, the audiobook edition of Empire of the Vampire is fantastic. I was lucky enough to receive an ALC for review, and I have nothing but good things to say about the production. From the opening musical score to the excellent narration by Damian Lynch, everything was superb. Definitely worth the listen.