Book Review: The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, #1) by Brian Staveley

Book Review: The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, #1) by Brian Staveley

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ARC provided by the publishers—Tor Books & Tor UK—in exchange for an honest review.

Cover art illustrated by: Richard Anderson

The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Series: Ashes of the Unhewn Throne (Book #1 of 3), Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne (Book #5 of 7)

Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy

Pages: 752 pages (Kindle edition)

Published: 8th July 2021 by Tor (UK) and 6th July 2021 by Tor Books (US)

The Empire’s Ruin is a scintillating explosive epic fantasy with multiple legendary scenes that rivaled The Way of Kings.

It’s been four years since Staveley’s previous book—the spin-off prequel to the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy—Skullsworn was published. The Empire’s Ruin marked Staveley’s return to the Annurian Empire and beyond. Yes, this is a continuation of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series by Brian Staveley. I’ve read all of Staveley’s books; I’m a fan of the main trilogy, but I became a HUGE fan of his books because of Skullsworn. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and Staveley exceeded my expectations as high as a soaring kettral. Before I get down to what made The Empire’s Ruin so amazing, I will first answer the question: can this be read without reading the previous books? It depends on each reader, but I personally say no; you will be missing out on so much important context, nuance, and character development even if the main story itself is technically a new storyline. To give a few popular examples, are you okay with reading Iron Gold by Pierce Brown without reading the first trilogy? Are you okay with reading The Tawny Man trilogy by Robin Hobb without reading The Farseer trilogy first? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you can start reading from here without reading the previous books. I honestly can’t and won’t do it; as a reader, I need to read everything in publication/series order. This is not just for completion’s sake, but also to make sure I get every meat of the story and character’s journey. I will elaborate more on this below.

“There were times to lie low, to watch and wait, to play the long game. And then there were times when you needed to light the world on fire and watch it explode.”

The Empire’s Ruin is the first book in the Ashes of the Unhewn Throne trilogy. More than five years have passed since the end of The Last Mortal Bond, and the Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The number of kettral—giant war hawks—that the Kettral has in their arsenal has dwindled, and the kenta gates that allow instant travel across the vast empire can no longer be used. In order to save the empire, Gwenna Sharpe received a mission from the emperor to take a journey beyond the Annurian Empire—to Menkiddoc, a dangerous land that warps and poisons all living things—to find the possible nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Then there’s also Ruc’s survival story in Dombang, and in the meantime, Akiil—a monk turned con artist—may hold the secret to using the kenta gates. If you crave a new epic fantasy tome with a darker tone, this should be right up your alley. Clocking in at more than 300,000 words and almost 800 pages long, The Empire’s Ruin is a character-driven epic fantasy that magnificently displayed the themes of life, death, faith, leadership, loyalty, and overcoming failures. The three main POV characters have storylines that were mostly separate from each other, but I found all of them to be almost equally captivating; they can’t be equal due to Gwenna’s storyline being too top-notch.

“Gwenna Sharpe was hardly the most skilled among the Kettral. Her own wing included stronger fighters, more proficient archers, superior tacticians. What set Sharpe apart, what made her the Wing’s true commander, was her unconquerable heart.”

Gwenna Sharpe, oh Gwenna Sharpe. I honestly thought Staveley wouldn’t be able to craft a character that outshined Pyrre Lakatur, and I was proven wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been a fan of Gwenna from the first trilogy, and I’m sure that sentiment has been echoed by a lot of readers as well. However, Staveley’s achievement in building Gwenna’s character through the brutal voyage in The Empire’s Ruin should earn him an award or two. It was so good. It was insanely good. Gwenna’s grand character arc was redolent of reading Kaladin’s story in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson; this is not acclaims I give lightly. In fact, the words “The Way of Kings” were mentioned in this book; whether that’s intentional or not, I think it was so apt.

“A path unfolded slowly. If you followed a path too far in the wrong direction all you had to do was turn around, start walking back the other way. What had happened to her felt more like a breakage. The right force had been applied at the right time in the right way, and something inside her had snapped, something that could not be put back.”

Gwenna’s role and appearances in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne were not infinitesimal in impact; she was practically one of the main characters, and she indeed became one in The Last Mortal Bond. That’s why I say it’s a necessity to read the first trilogy to fully appreciate the immense character’s development and growth that shaped Gwenna in this novel. She’s badass, foul-mouthed, unconquerable, and utterly inspiring. The Empire’s Ruin is not for the faint of heart; Gwenna encountered torment—both physically and mentally—numerous times. But I’m enthusiastic about reading broken characters that try their best to survive, rise from their failures, and fight no matter what. I have a soft spot for characters who have lost all hope but find something to fight for, usually sparked by unforeseen circumstances or relationships. And Gwenna’s relationship with the ragtag band of semi-strangers—Kiel, Rat, Cho Lu, Pattick, Bhuma Dhar—she met was a bright highlight of the book for me. After reading The Empire’s Ruin, I will say this: Gwenna has seriously become one of my favorite characters of all time, and she’s Staveley’s most well-crafted character.

“You are the unfolding, Gwenna. You are the change. You are whatever it is that, in the face of misery and bliss and bafflement, keeps going.”

As I‘ve mentioned, Gwenna’s story was just too spectacular, and from my perspective, she’s THE main character of this novel, but this doesn’t mean that the other character’s storylines were boring. The second main character is Ruc Lakatur Lan Lac; he’s a brand new character, but if you’ve read Skullsworn, you’ll know who he is. Ruc’s POV was quite likely the only one that you can read without reading the previous books first, but you would still benefit from reading Skullsworn because Ruc’s entire storyline takes place in Dombang—the setting of Skullsworn. Dombang is a terrifying place, and Staveley utilized Ruc’s POV chapters to show the decimation and conflicts that can be brought by faith. I loved reading the characterizations of Ruc and his development with Bien; their romance and survival stories always felt engaging to me.

‘“Every people has a story of their golden age. How it was different. Better. More noble. It’s funny how those golden ages are always in the past, always eclipsed by some more recent catastrophe. You think Dombang was better two hundred years ago, but go back two hundred years, and I promise you, the people then were just like us. They were angry, confused, afraid. And they thought that they’d already missed it, some golden age that took place two hundred years before them, or five hundred, or a thousand…” He turned from the stars to look at Ruc. “Instead of worshipping the past, I’d like to work on the present.”
“By murdering people.”
“Some people need murdering.”’

Akiil, on the other hand, didn’t have many appearances compared to Gwenna and Ruc. Akiil was Kaden’s friend and a side character in The Emperor’s Blades; similar to Gwenna’s POV chapters, reading the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne first will enhance Akiil’s POV. The reason behind this is that his story is intertwined heavily with one of the main characters from the first trilogy, and the Shin Monk, kenta gates, the concept of vaniate, and Csestriim are crucial elements of Staveley’s world-building. I wish there were more of Akiil’s chapters, and fortunately, judging from the convergence that occurred at the final chapters of his plot, I think we’ll get to witness that more in the sequel.

“When had that ever not been true? She was no historian, but you didn’t need to be in order to see that the chronicle of the world was a chronicle of things going wrong, of plague and famine, slaughter, rebellion, greed and cowardice, human misery wide as the sea.”

Venturing beyond the Annurian Empire to Menkiddoc and Dombang, then learning more about the Nevariim, Csestriim, monsters, leach, kettral, and more was a terrific reading experience. I’ve always felt that Staveley’s world-building could be expanded further, and he delivered what I wanted here. The Empire’s Ruin is both epic in scope and battle sequences. Praising Staveley’s action sequences in The Empire’s Ruin can be considered a challenge on its own. Why? Well, he didn’t just create one unforgettable scene, and he also didn’t create two; he wrote at least THREE incredibly iconic scenes that are on par with The Immortal Words scenes from The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. There’s the blood-crazed and pulse-pounding aerial battle; the bloodsoaked keelhauling scene; lastly, the entire final chapter that left me literally breathless.

“Pain is a gift… It keeps the weary soldiers awake. It reminds the irresolute warrior that there is work still to finish. It whispers in the ear of all who feel it something they might otherwise forget: You are not dead.”

The culmination of emotions, stakes, unpredictability, and intensity poured into the final chapter was absolutely mind-blowing. Additionally, I want to also briefly say that Jonon lem Jonon is one of the most despicable characters; I love to hate him. Every confrontation that involved Jonon was brimming with fury, chaos, and tension. I frankly don’t think this book would’ve been this awesome without the conflicts between Gwenna and Jonon. Staveley’s characterizations and actions were deadly precise, and this book shows once more why he’s—in my opinion—one of the best fantasy writers when it comes to prose’s quality.

“You couldn’t think about it, all the world’s suffering, or it would choke you. If you stopped to ponder all that misery, you’d never start moving again.”

Ever since I finished Skullsworn a few years ago, I’ve constantly praised Staveley’s prose; philosophical, memorable, and also beautiful and destructive. Staveley’s prose is exemplary, a gift to the fantasy genre, and I’m truly grateful I get the chance to read another epic fantasy novel from him. Sometimes, I believe that the greatness of prose in a fantasy novel can be measured by how many passages we end up highlighting. Well, I’ve certainly executed that course of action here; I’ve shared some of my favorites on this review, and I’ll present you with one more:

“Life is an unwinnable fight, Gwenna Sharpe. If ends are all that matter, then we are all fools and failures.”

I love epic fantasy so much, it is my favorite genre of books, and it’s always a blessing to me to be reminded just how excellent new fantasy releases can be. The dark brilliance of The Empire’s Ruin is inestimable. The ambitious blade of imagination that Staveley manifested in this novel surpassed my expectations in every possible way. Whether it’s the heart-hammering onslaughts, the savage battle sequences, the superb character development, or the enviable prose, everything about The Empire’s Ruin is undoubtedly a precious work of art. For almost a year now, my list of all-time favorite authors hasn’t increased, and it is with temerity and happiness I can include Brian Staveley as a worthy addition to the list. There’s still a few months before The Empire’s Ruin is officially released, and if you haven’t done it, I urge you to read the four books in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne ASAP. Ashes of the Unhewn Throne is guaranteed to be a superior epic fantasy series compared to its predecessor. And I want you to experience The Empire’s Ruin—Staveley’s newest masterwork—at its height without missing any crucial development or details. Read the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, then read The Empire’s Ruin. Thank me later.

Official release date: 8th July 2021 (UK) and 6th July 2021 (US)

You can pre-order the book from: Amazon UK | Amazon US | Book Depository (Free shipping) | The Broken Binding (Use my code: NOVELNOTIONS121 for discount!)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

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