Book Review: Empire of the Vampire (Empire of the Vampire, #1) by Jay Kristoff

Book Review: Empire of the Vampire (Empire of the Vampire, #1) by Jay Kristoff

Cover art illustrated by Kerby Rosanes

Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Series: Empire of the Vampire (Book #1 of 3)

Genre: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic fantasy

Pages: 725 pages (UK Hardcover)

Published: 7th September 2021 by Harper Voyager (UK) & 14th September by Tor Books (US)

Empire of the Vampire is an infuriating novel. And yet, at the same time, it is also a brilliant and bloody epic post-apocalyptic fantasy and vampire story.

“I never thought I’d find such peace in simple reading. The words were a kind of magic, taking me by the hand and sweeping me into lands unseen, times unremembered, thoughts unimagined. Through all my years in San Michon, all the blood and sweat and darkling roads I walked, I learned one of my greatest lessons sitting in that Library with those girls in the still of the night.
A life without books is a life not lived.”

The Nevernight Chronicles was a surprising trilogy for me. I went into it on a whim, never expecting I would like it, but I loved it. Since its announcement, especially after hearing it will be an illustrated novel, I was undoubtedly excited to get to reading Empire of the Vampire. Yes, it has been a year since this book was first released, and after all the hype, praises, and many special editions (oh so many), it’s only now I can read it. The reading mood is a difficult maze to navigate, okay? More importantly, did Empire of the Vampire live up to expectations? No, and yes. My reading experience of this book felt like I experienced hell and heaven at once. Seriously, so few books I’ve read made me hate and love them as much as I did for Empire of the Vampire. By the way, I am also not a fan of the book or series title. Empire of the Vampire is an awkward name for a book or series; I would’ve preferred Vampire’s Empire or The Silversaint Chronicles. But hey, that’s just me. I am not the writer of this tale. I am, however, the writer of this review, and I shall begin it now.

“I’ve stood in the houses of the holy, priest. I’ve read his scripture cover to cover, I’ve sung praises to his name, and I tell you now and tell you true: One hand holding a sword is worth ten thousand clasped in prayer.”

First, the premise. Gabriel is a silversaint, a member of a holy brotherhood dedicated to defending the realm and church from the evil creatures of the night. The narrative is told through three timeframes, and in the present day, it seems that the Silver Order has failed. It has been twenty-seven long years since the last sunrise. For nearly three decades, vampires have waged war against humanity. They built their eternal empire as they tear down humanities. Now, only a few tiny sparks of light endure in a sea of darkness. Only Gabriel remains. Imprisoned by the monsters he vowed to destroy, the last silversaint is forced to tell his story. A story of legendary battles and forbidden love, faith and brotherhood, the Wars of the Blood and the Forever King, and the quest for humanity’s last remaining hope: the Holy Grail. In Empire of the Vampire, Kristoff utilized a framing narrative to tell the story of Gabriel de León. And Kristoff implemented three timeframes to do this.

Picture: The Last Silversaint by Bon Orthwick (Monolime)

First, we have the present day, where Gabriel is forced to tell his story to his captor: Jean-François. And this is not a straightforward chronological retelling of his past like the ones shown in, for example, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Or Blood Song by Anthony Ryan, if you want another example. The framing narrative utilized in Empire of the Vampire is more akin to The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons. With the exception that Empire of the Vampire is much more accessible than The Ruin of Kings, of course. Gabriel uses two timelines to fill in the details of his legends and feats, one is his coming-of-age story starting from when he was 15 years of age, and the other is the beginning of the quest for the Holy Grail that begins when he was 32 years old, just 3 years before the present day.

“There’s no misery so deep as one you face by yourself. No nights darker than ones you spend alone. But you can learn to live with any weight. Your scars grow thick enough, they become armour.”

This is daring and risky of Kristoff, but no, the style of the framing narrative is not the main issue I had with this book. I am a fan of framing narratives; seeing how the details of the legends explored and achieved often felt satisfying to me. And I believe this storytelling style should be featured more prominently in the fantasy genre. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I experienced both hell and heaven reading this book. So I’m going to start with the bad experience first. There is no easy way of saying this: I hate-read the majority of the first half of Empire of the Vampire.

Picture: Empire of the Vampire by Jason Chan

It was incredibly infuriating. Every character in the first half of the novel was insanely unlikable. And none of them were interesting enough for me to feel invested in their stories. I’ve read many grimdark fantasy novels featuring characters doing questionable actions I disagreed with. But it is crucial to have something about them (determination, unflinching bravery) that drove me to like a part of them enough to continue reading or at least feel invested in their story. And personally, there was nothing of those in the first half of Empire of the Vampire. Whether it’s Gabriel when he was 15 or 32 years old, he constantly behaved like a brat, bastard, or an asshole with no redeeming factor. And to be fair, Gabriel acknowledged this multiple times throughout his storytelling. But that’s also where my next issue lies.

“See, I never understood that. Why pride is looked on as an evil. You work hard at something you’re not born good at? Damn right you should be fucking proud.”

From The Nevernight Chronicles, I can say that I (surprisingly) liked reading Kristoff’s purple prose; he has a beautiful writing style filled with iconic phrases that make every emotional, violent, and intense scene so palpable. But the way the first half is written made the book feel like it’s a full-throttle edgy YA fantasy novel written by a teenager trying way too hard to be accepted as an adult. I won’t even be surprised if this book is shelved as a YA fantasy novel based on its first half. The way Gabriel constantly says he’s a bastard or asshole, and then he wanted his chronicler to acknowledge this multiple times (which he did and Gabe was so proud of them) made me cringe and eye-rolled so hard. It’s similar to Joffrey from A Song of Ice and Fire demanding people to call him king, but in the case of Joffrey, it worked accordingly with the story and his character. Additionally, the cursings. If you’re reading my review for the first time here, check out the books I’ve read first before calling me a prude here. Most of the epic fantasy books I’ve read are serious or dark in tone, brutal, and violent. And yes, they feature words and themes kids should not be reading without guidance. However, the issue I have with the first half of Empire of the Vampire was how these curses were implemented. It felt like Kristoff, who constantly say he cursed a lot in real life, just finally found out he can use the word fuck, fucking, and whoreson. And then, he decided to use three words for every situation and sentence, no matter how random and awkward they’re placed. If you want to make your character curse frequently, make them count. Prove a point with them. One out of many examples, take a read at The Gentleman Bastards by Scott Lynch. Various forms of profanity were unleashed, and cursings felt like a form of art being wielded brilliantly to augment emotions, comedy, and narrative.

“When there’s little you can do, do what little you can.”

All these issues made me struggle a LOT reading the first half of Empire of the Vampire. If it weren’t because the beautiful interior artwork exist, and my buddy-read friends who convinced me to persevere, I would’ve given up. Fortunately, I did not give up. Lady Fortuna shines on me. What happened? Two words: second half.

“How many hearts have been made complete by words so small as I do? How many more have been shattered with a breath as tiny as It’s over? Little sounds that reshape or unmake your entire world, like great spells of old to redraw the very lines by which you see yourself and all else about you. Two little words.”

Empire of the Vampire, divided into six parts, suddenly transformed into something irresistibly awesome starting from part four. You’ve read my rants on the book, and if I were to give a rating based only on the first half of the novel, it would barely be a 2 stars rating. The second half, however, was undoubtedly Jay Kristoff at his best, a magnificent 5 stars rating through-through. All the problems I had with the first half of the book vanished. The sorely needed excellent characterizations and development were laid down meticulously. Curses were used as a signifier at the right time. Plus, I ended up loving reading Gabriel’s brotherhood with Aaron and Baptiste, too, and trust me, from the first half of the book, this was a mission impossible. I think jumping back and forth between flashbacks caused this issue for me. It took me almost 400 pages long of Empire of the Vampire to feel like I’ve gotten to know and like Gabriel more as the main character. Without the needed background, his (even more) infuriating adult state felt much more intolerable. As I became more and more invested in the characters, the character’s flaws turned into something positive for the overall quality of the narrative. The long-awaited crimson action sequences also appeared brutally. The intriguing and intricate world-building felt multiply immersive. In other words, after the great difficulties I had with the first half, Empire of the Vampire increasingly became a compelling dark fantasy I couldn’t put down with each page I read in the second half.

“But music, de León…” The vampire leaned forward, animated for perhaps the first time since their conversation began. “Music is a truth beyond telling. A bridge between strangest souls. Two men who speak not a word of each other’s tongues may yet feel their hearts soar likewise at the same refrain. Gift a man the most important of lessons, he may forget it amorrow. Gift him a beautiful song, and he shall hum it ’til the day the crows make a castle of his bones.”

The last two Parts of Empire of the Vampire were simply outstanding. Now imbued with the empathizing characterizations and vivid world, all the themes, revelations, betrayals, brutality, violence, vendettas, and heartbreak transformed Empire of the Vampire into a pulse-pounding and breathtaking story. Witnessing the character’s brotherhood, love, and desperate struggles in the dark and merciless world, one step at a time, was utterly rewarding. Also, the tension of the battles felt palpable because the villains of Empire of the Vampire (The Beast of Vellene and The Raven Child) were ruthless, terrifying, and powerful. Even knowing that Gabriel survived these ordeals (obviously, he is telling his story, after all) doesn’t diminish the intensity of the conflicts. I absolutely loved the second half of this book; there is no if or question about that.

“It’s only in faerie tales that everything works out for the best with a magik spell or a prince’s kiss. It’s only in storybooks some little bastard picks up a sword and wields it like he was born to it. The rest of us? We have to work our arses off. And we might not ever taste triumph, but at least we dared to fail. We stand apart from those cowards whispering on the sidelines about how the strong did stumble, while never daring to set foot in the ring themselves. Victors are just folk who were never satisfied being vanquished. The only thing worse than finishing last is not beginning at all. And fuck finishing last.”

Picture: Empire of the Vampire by Kerby Rosanes

Lastly, before I end this review, allow me to give my praises to the artists behind Empire of the Vampire because they are responsible for improving the novel to a higher level. As far as the “standard” edition goes, aesthetically, Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff is most likely the most beautiful standard edition I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. And this goes for both editions. The US edition has cover art illustrated by Jason Chan, one of my favorite artists who also did the US cover art of The Nevernight Chronicles. The UK cover art is illustrated by Kerby Rosanes, who is, once again, one of my favorite artists who also did the UK cover art of The Nevernight Chronicles. The US edition has one heck of typography done by Meg Morley and a cover design by Young Lim. The UK cover art has a cover design by the awesome Micaela Alcaino. Then there’s also the beautiful map of the Empire of Elidaen by Virginia Allyn.

Picture: The Empire of Elidaen Map by Virginia Allyn

But the most distinct enhancer is the enormous amount of gorgeous interior artwork here. Yes, for those of you who don’t know, every edition of Empire of the Vampire has more than 30 interior artworks illustrated by Bon Orthwick (Monolime). In a way, the standard edition of Empire of the Vampire alone already feels like a special edition for many other fantasy books right now. Plus, there are now almost 30 special editions for Empire of the Vampire. Does it deserve that many special editions? No. I don’t think so. Honestly, so few fantasy book in this world deserves that many special editions. This is not Jay Kristoff’s fault. And yes, I know money matters most to publishers. But I can’t help but feel that this is straight-up overkill. Empire of the Vampire has been out for only a year, with no sequel in sight yet, and it’s insane that it already has almost 30 special editions. It’s an injustice to many fantasy authors who sometimes struggle to even get a hardcover of their books published by traditional publishers. Anyway, this is long enough, and it’s a topic for another day. My point: the artists did an excellent job on this book.

Picture: Gabriel de Leon by Bon Orthwick (Monolime)

“The book was near falling to pieces, but the lettering was still visible, faint and faded, oui, but still there. This, too, was a strange immortality. Poems, stories, ideas, frozen forever in time. The simple wonder of books.”

It is unfortunate. Despite how much I loved reading the last 300 pages of Empire of the Vampire, I cannot give this book a full 5 stars rating due to the issues I had with the first half of the novel. On the plus side, I am confident a re-read of this book will offer a better reading experience now that I’ve known the character, their personalities, and their motivations. The Castlevania franchise is one of my favorite games to play, and Hellsing Ultimate is one of my favorite animes of all time. I have always been a fan of vampires in the fantasy genre, and although I am glad many people loved Twilight, I have to say that I am slightly saddened by how it changed the way vampires are portrayed and assessed in the masses. But Empire of the Vampire, a novel that is often pitched as The Name of the Wind meets The Road, The Witcher, and Interview with the Vampire, delivered what I’ve been craving and love about vampires in dark fantasy. I am eagerly waiting for the second book in the trilogy, which I think will top Empire of the Vampire in every possible way.

“You’re past is stone, but your future clay. And you decide the shape of the life you’ll make.”

You can order this book from: Blackwells (Free International shipping)

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