A debut fantasy sees a corrupt empire crumbling as enemies from within and without exact vengeance.
On the world of Urrael, the Sindathi Empire stretches across the continent of Terryth. In the 22nd year of Emperor Thelden III Arrigar’s rule, a column of Imperial Guardsmen breached the forested Kingdom of Sunset. They skirmished with the Aelfen people to retrieve a silver-haired boy, the emperor's bastard grandson. Ten years later, that boy is the princeling Drake, who’s been raised alongside Crown Prince Baildan and his twin brother, Cirrus, in the city of Arleon. Drake knows five languages and practices sorcery, but one subject with which he’d love to become better acquainted is the alluring handmaiden Leasha. Celebrating her 16th birthday, she, Drake, and her upstanding cousin Darius visit the Whirling Blade tavern. The fun ends when a drunken Baildan gives salacious attention to Leasha. Fearing that she’ll be manhandled, Drake lets loose a magical fireball that scorches the establishment’s ceiling. He’s found guilty of attempting to assassinate Baildan and is exiled to the far-flung posting of Icegate. Meanwhile, Darius, an Initiate in the Order of the Golden Path, is raised by the emperor to be Champion of the First Rank. His first mission as a soldier brings him to the hamlet of Ferrin, which revolts against Gov. Bravard. Darius is second-in-command under 1st Capt. Jarvis, who quells the rebellion with merciless violence. But when Darius learns that Bravard has been raping the girls of Ferrin, his role as a Champion becomes that much more urgent.
Sterling’s lushly realized novel should scratch the itch for those awaiting more material from Game of Thrones mastermind George R.R. Martin. Terryth is an aggressively horrible place, bristling with religious and political complexities, mainly in service to Ryack, the Empire’s patron deity. Narrative sparks come from the ways in which Drake, Leasha, and Darius strive to assert their humanity with malicious forces coiling around them. As Drake imagines dying a traitor’s death, Sterling writes, “His mortal soul would be forbidden Ryack’s Aetherial embrace so that upon his expiration it would have no refuge from consumption within the Everdeep, that dread ocean of half-understood madness that awaits all who die heretics.” Fantasy elements never crowd out the human moments—which often involve suffering—but when scenes like the battle between Drake and the gigantic, hammer-wielding Vendigon occur, they bring the adventure a feverish, anything-can-happen vibe. Most riveting is Sterling’s portrayal of faith. When Darius faces Ferrin’s rebel Champion, Uldar, the man is able to summon the light and strength of Ryack because “the Order does not have a monopoly on righteousness.” While Drake, who is half-Aelfen, and Leasha, a young servant, know the hypocritical core of the Empire too well, it’s the honorable Darius whose hopes are dashed the worst. The finale to this first volume in a trilogy is staggeringly violent, made all the more effective because readers have seen the characters through both trial and mirth.
This striking tale whips up a fresh storm in familiar fantasy territory.