It’s Not You, It’s Me: Empire of Exiles by Erin M Evans

Posted 6th October 2022 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

Empire of Exiles (Books of the Usurper, #1) by Erin M. Evans
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Minor M/M
PoV: 3rd-person, past-tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 8th November 2022
ISBN: B09TZYZJQR
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Twenty-seven years ago, a Duke with a grudge led a ruthless coup against the empire of Semilla, killing thousands. He failed. The Duke was executed, a terrifyingly powerful sorcerer was imprisoned, and an unwilling princess disappeared.

The empire moved on.

Now, when Quill, an apprentice scribe, arrives in the capital city, he believes he’s on a simple errand for another pompous noble: fetch ancient artifacts from the magical Imperial Archives. He’s always found his apprenticeship to be dull work. But these aren’t just any artifacts — these are the instruments of revolution, the banners under which the Duke lead his coup.

Just as the artifacts are unearthed, the city is shaken by a brutal murder that seems to have been caused by a weapon not seen since the days of rebellion.

Since Quill is the only reliable witness to the murder, and no one in power believes his story, he must join with a young mage, a seasoned archivist, and a disillusioned detective to find the truth of the attack. And what they uncover will be the key to saving the empire – or destroying it for good.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Highlights

~opal mosaics
~sorcerers and saints
~if it can’t touch iron, kill it with salt
~how much do you trust your memories?
~a (maybe) mammoth

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Empire of Exiles. On a technical, objective level, it’s a very well-written piece of work; the use of language is good, the worldbuilding is detailed without being overwhelming, the cast is made up of an interestingly varied group of characters, the magic system is unique and fabulously interesting, and the stakes start high and just grow higher as puzzle pieces fall into place one by one, coming down like lightning strikes.

And yet.

It’s not that I found myself frustrated with it. I mean what I said: I can’t point to any flaws, give any concrete critique.

But I just didn’t care. I found Empire of Exiles to be missing some critical x factor; even as secret after world-shaking secret was revealed, I had to force myself to read through to the end. I think I really only did so for Yinii, who is perfect in every way and really the star of the entire novel; I’m very glad that her role grew as the book went on, so that she started out as a fairly minor character but was vitally important to events by the final pages.

It’s very possible that the problem with Empire of Exiles is not, in fact, with the book, but with me; I do kind of feel that I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read it at some other time, when I was in a better headspace. Because when I think about the book’s component parts, it seems like something I should have loved – the incredible setting of an empire surrounded and contained by a giant salt wall to keep out shapeshifting monsters; several non-human species living alongside humans; a magic system inspired by clinical anxiety; an imperial archive of ancient treasures and the archivists who care for them all. What’s not to like?

It was the promise of excellent worldbuilding that led me to request an ARC of Empire of Exiles, and I think Evans both delivers and does not deliver on that promise. On the one hand, each of the cultures that make up the empire feel very distinct, with their own ideas about religion, social hierarchy, family models, magic, etc. On the other hand, I was baffled by how minimal the physical descriptions of the non-humans were; we’re told that Orozhandi like Yinii have horns, but until someone calls her ‘goat girl’ near the end of the book, I had no idea what those horns looked like – given that the Orozhandi hang special charms from their horns, at once point I wondered if they might even be more like antlers (since those would be much easier to hang charms on). Then there’s the Ashtabari, who are human from the waist up but have tentacles from the waist down, and again, despite the fact that we have a (delightfully snarky) Ashtabari character among the cast, I never even caught what colour his tentacles were, never mind how many a person has, or whether they have suckers like an octopus’s, or what walking upright with tentacles instead of legs is supposed to look like. Etc. These are pretty obvious details to overlook – I adored learning about the Orozhandi saints and how their views on magic differ from pretty much everyone else’s, but no matter how much cultural info you give me I’m going to struggle if I don’t know how to picture one.

If you can get past that, the story Evans has come up with is extremely twisty, with plenty of intrigue surrounding a bizarre murder – one that turns out to have jaw-dropping implications for the past civil war, and reveals a pretty incredible right-now threat against the empire. The ‘weapon not seen since the days of rebellion’ mentioned in the blurb is objectively cool and clever, and is utilised to great effect; I’m not going to tell you any more than that, because learning what it is and how it works should definitely be a part of the reading experience. Its use, or possible uses, affect every aspect of the book in ways I genuinely want to applaud.

Objectively, Empire of Exiles is pretty excellent. I can’t point to anything Evans did wrong (beyond the not-describing-your-non-humans thing). Maybe I was in the wrong headspace, or maybe Empire of Exiles simply wasn’t for me, but as much as I loved the worldbuilding (and I did love it a lot), I had next to no interest in the story itself, or most of the characters. I’ve already forgotten most of the cast’s names, which is never a good sign. Empire of Exiles and I just didn’t connect. I appreciated various parts of it, but I didn’t enjoy it – does that make sense? I would happily read an entire fictional encyclopedia on the world Evans has created here, and intellectually, I can acknowledge that she did a lot of great things with this book. I will tentatively check out her other books, and keep an eye on what she writes after the Books of the Usurper series is finished, because I think she’s a great writer. It’s just that this book didn’t work for me.

If I pick up the sequel, it will be solely to see what happens next to Yinii, because her storyline and character growth in Empire of Exiles is wonderful.

But I probably won’t pick it up.

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