Brian McClellan’s Sins of Empire was among the finest novels published in 2017. I came to it blind, not having read Brian’s first Powder Mage trilogy, unfamiliar with a world that, soon enough would come to be one of the most treasured fictional realms I’ve ever resided in. I recall opening Sins of Empire up for the first time, on a train from Milano to Monza where I was living in March 2017. I’d bought the book on something of a whim, after glancing through a review on the r/fantasy subreddit. It’s a short trip, from Milano to Monza, barely twenty minutes.
And I missed my train station.
That’s the sort of magic Brian McClellan works into his writing. You forget everything but the page you’re on, and then there’s the next one, and the next one, and the one after that. His Powder Mage work is escapism at its finest, and it’s enchanting and addictive. Why, then, did it take me more than a year to get to Wrath of Empire?
The answer is simple enough – in preparation for Wrath’s release, I might’ve accidentally overdosed. A few short days before its release date, I took it upon myself to read the original trilogy. And boy, did I read it. It took me three days – and the better part of three nights – but I went through that trilogy like a ravenous ghoul through a cadaver. I lived in that universe, and every time I breathed in, I caught a whiff of saltpetre and gunpowder. And like a powder mage who has taken in too much of the stuff, I might have somewhat burnt myself out. When the book came out, I bought it…but I didn’t yet feel the need to read it. The months went on by, until…I needed another hit of gunpowder.
And by Jove, what a hit it was.
Wrath of Empire is explosive. It’s grand, it’s bloody and brimming with action; further, it is a fantastic representative of what I’ve come to think of as the new age of heroic fantasy, gritty and seeking to affect realism but ultimately hopeful even at its bleakest. How does Wrath succeed in this? Through what is arguably McClellan’s greatest strength, his characters.
Whether they are the leading protagonists or supporting characters, Brian’s characters are exceptional, all pushed and pulled by conflicting motivations such as duty and personal feelings, for example. Vlora Flint continues to be one of my absolute favourite women in fantasy, whether she’s showing her tactical prowess or exceptional powder mage abilities. Every minute spent sharing her headspace was a delight and nothing less, and her closing scenes in this novel inspired me to dig deep into heroism in today’s fantasy (follow my writing if you’d like to receive word about what is shaping up to be a promising essay).
Ben Styke is one of those characters much of whose power rests on a reputation of cold-blooded murder and a yearning for chaos. Thinking back on it, he’s got a few things in common with Abercrombie’s infamous Logen Ninefingers – but the difference between the two is, I think, that Styke shows through Wrath that he has changed his ways and left much of the bloodthirst and aimless cruelty behind. Not that he’s not one nasty sunuva… but only for good reason. Ben shows mercy more than once, to people the “Mad Lancer” of old would have slaughtered without a moment’s hesitation. He is conflicted, asking himself challenging and difficult questions that his monstrous former self never would have.
These were not times, he decided, that he would judge any man for acting in fear.
Michel is a spy. It’s funny but I actually remember his sections in Sins the least out of the three characters’. Funny, because he is supposed to be someone who shouldn’t come to mind, someone you don’t look at twice. I’d like to imagine he’d be comfortable with me not remembering much of his part in the story so far, at least at first. The shift in Michel’s story is that the man who is most comfortable operating in the shadows is forced to take center stage – given a secret mission by Taniel Two-Shot, he is forced to become a “turncoat” to the Blackhats (the secret police he spent a few years infiltrating, to mixed success in Sins), “defecting” to the Dynize invaders that now hold the city of Landfall. This places him, a non-Dynize, in the spotlight, creating a whole lot of challenges that neither he, nor many of us readers could ever have expected. It’s fascinating, and allows Brian to show the Dynize culture from an insider’s perspective; the intrigue, the political fractures in the empire make the terrifying new enemy from the end of Sins of Empire much more human.
A character I much enjoyed, the merchant Vallencian who, if memory serves, had a moniker something along the lines of the Ice King, only appeared for an all too short a scene. I’m looking forward to seeing him again in Blood of Empire!
I could go on and on. Taniel Two-Shot is as glorious and horrifying as you might remember him from the first Powder Mage trilogy; I miss him as a point-of-view character but watching him from Vlora’s perspective is nothing to complain about. The distance between him and Vlora, a lot of the pressure from Sins has dissipated now that their goals are aligned; seeing the friendship between them is great. As great as the depth of emotion between Vlora and Olem, another Powder Mage trilogy veteran. Olem remains the smart-mouth, tough sergeant at heart, even if he’s Vlora’s second-in-command. Poor guy, though – a number Vlora pulls on him towards the end of Wrath is going to be…hard to live down. Ka-Poel, our favourite Dynize witch, powerful enough to turn gods into mush, is even more terrifying than before, too! There’s a lot of that going on – power progression with her feels well deserved and I’m deeply interested to see how her character arc progresses further. So many other characters deserve a shout-out: Lindet, Ibana, Styke’s foster daughter Celine, Ji-Orz…and a dozen other named characters – at least!
The action demands some praise. The skirmishes between Vlora’s Riflejacks and the Dynize, between Ben Styke’s cuirassiers and dragoons versus their Dynize counterparts, are all deeply tactical, well-researched and thought out, and expertly described. Whenever Ben or Vlora join the fray, combat turns bloody, dirty and downright cathartic. Like Sanderson, Brian McClellan’s writing gets better and better and his action writing never ceases to steal my breath away.
The antagonist of this trilogy seems to be Ka-Sedial, the leader of the Dynize invasion forces. He is a dastardly fellow whose depravity knows no bounds. Michel’s storyline in particular does a lot to show how dangerous this old man is in his quest to create a new god for his people, using the Godstones, magical artefacts which frame the story.
This is such a good read. I don’t think, after all this, you’d be surprised to find out that I give this novel a score of 5/5 on Goodreads, and my full-hearted recommendation.
You might want to read this if:
- You love flintlock fantasy;
- You are looking for a character-driven story with tight plotting;
- You love action, whether in great big scales or in small ones;
- Unique, well-thought-out, “hard” magic systems tickle your fancy;
- You really enjoy reading about your favourite main characters getting shot. A lot;
- And More! Prob’ly.