Sins of Empire – Brian McClellan – 9/10

This review is technically for one book, but in actuality it covers an entire preceding trilogy. Brian McClellan’s latest effort, Sins of Empire, is a real treat, and one of the best fantasies I have read this year. Moving on from the revolutions of the Powder Mage trilogy with its country-spanning conflicts involving revolutionaries, imperialists and gods, Sins of Empire expands its scope to an entirely new continent, hinted at in the previous trilogy, with a few old friends to guide us on our way.

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Perfect reading for a day-long train journey

McClellan’s world is a traditional fantasy setting of cunning mages and vying gods, but one that is undergoing its industrial revolution, as well as the political upheaval of the rise of republicanism and colonialization – think the French Revolution and the colonisation of North America but with magic as well as muskets. The Powder Mage trilogy (which I highly recommend) focuses more on the former, where Sins of Empire moves its attention to the latter.

Attendant to this “flintlock fantasy” setting is the most unique and, in my opinion, exciting aspect of McClellan’s world-building – the powder mages. While his general magic system of Privileged mages having extensive elemental powers and Knacked having minor skills (such as not having to sleep or having a perfect memory), the powder mages are unique – individuals who can manipulate the explosive power of gunpowder to shot across several miles, round corners or without a gun, as well as detonating powder from a distance, which is especially effective against a mass infantry charge. It would work well on the big screen, and McClellan manages to get the cinematic nature of the power across without losing any literary merit, as some authors can. His battle scenes are excellent, and carry the right amount of pathos and dry humour. His style is reminiscent of Steven Erikson, if Erikson was given the chance to write a Sharpe script.

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While Jonathan Strange losing his temper at Waterloo is impressive, it’s just a taster of the fun Powder Mages provide (Credit: BBC)

In Sins of Empire, all the elements that fans of McClellan will expect are there. World-weary military leaders? Check. A spy or investigator out of his depth? Check. War heroes caught up in networks of loyalty? Check. Mysterious antagonist? Check. Yet McClellan takes the elements of his former work and spins them out in a way that leaves the reader who thinks they know what to expect very much on their toes. The characters McClellan writes are all engaging and relatable, and Mikel in particular is a favourite of mine. The necessity of an informer to have multiple personalities to hand makes for a wonderful character study, especially one where his position forces amorality on a man who is ultimately so sympathetic.

Sins of Empire builds on earlier events, but in a different way. Where revolution was bloody, organised and guillotine-based in his first trilogy, now it is subtler, underground and involving information and propaganda. Class divides become ethnic, and here is the strength of McClellan’s work – the themes are strong and clear but not heavy-handed. The treatment of the native Palo under those settling Fatrastra has clear parallels in our own history and our contemporary world. The analogues with European colonialism are clear, but also focus on the give and take – there are things to be gained from the cultural contact as well as inevitable and regrettable strife. This is especially true when characters from both sides end up embroiled in their own connections and sympathies that aren’t always compatible with those of their putative friends and allies.

Loyalty is certainly the main theme of Sins of Empire. While many of these are religious, ethnic and political, there are many personal conflicts. Does General Vlora follow coin or principle? Can she overcome old wounds to form alliances with those who have hurt her? Can Ben Styke put his country before his thirst for revenge against those who incarcerated him in a prison camp? And who can he trust when he becomes free – and who will he risk putting in danger by coming back into their lives? Which of Mikel’s many personas is really him, and which is he most loyal to?

Sins of Empire is a rip-roaring page turner brimming with political intrigue and pseudo-Napoleonic magical warfare, but its true strength is the intricacies and realism of the world and its characters. While you probably need to read the Powder Mage trilogy before embarking on this new trilogy, “Gods of Blood and Powder”, this is no bad thing – it means I am recommending four books to you instead of one!

Rosewater – Tade Thompson – 7.5/10

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is a thought-provoking and refreshing novel, taking many tropes from science-fiction, especially alien invasion and telepath movies, and gently moulding them into a gripping multilayered and multifaceted story.

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Set in Nigeria between the 2032 and 2066, Rosewater focuses on the eponymous shanty-town-turned-city that has sprung up around the Utopicity, an alien formation that bestows annual healing on those in the vicinity, with results that are rather mixed; some mutilate themselves in the interests of “reconstructive surgery” to get wings and extra limbs, while uncontrolled healing in a land with shallow graves can lead to unfortunate consequences: the soul is a harder thing to fix than the body. In this way, Thompson manages to blend the best bits of Torchwood’s “Miracle Day”, Doctor Who’s “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” and District 9, without seeming derivative, and injecting the realism and grit of the latter into the former. Thompson even manages to use an idea similar to the infamous midichlorians of Star Wars without them seeming daft or senseless.

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(When it comes to healing, be careful what you wish for [taken from bbc.co.uk])

The narrative is told by Kaaro, a “sensitive”, whose “finding” abilities which allow him to seek out objects that belong to people, read minds and walk a shared hive-mind he calls the xenosphere. A youth of petty crime, drugs, alcohol, sex and near-lynchings have drawn the attention of Nigeria’s special forces, and Kaaro leads a double life of a bank-clerk and secret police agent. Kaaro is an interesting character; a classic, self-serving anti-hero who begins to learn that there is more to life than himself over the course of the novel. His story is told in a non-linear fashion – we flit between the present of 2066, his criminal youth in the 2040s and his self-discovery as a criminal psychic, recruitment as a spy and his experience of the rise of the world-changing Utopicity in 2055 that made Nigeria one of the most important countries in the world. This structure can be slightly confusing at times, but the threads are easy to drop and pick up, and Thompson is adept at hinting at the past and the future in a way that draws the reader in with just enough information to tantalise, but not enough to provide spoilers, both on a macro-plot level, and a micro-level of interesting nuggets about the make-up of the world in 2066. It is most impressive world-building, and this is one of those reviews where I am especially afraid to give away too much plot information in case the delicate web is torn.

Thompson has chosen his setting well, and made it completely immersive. The intersection of humanity and the alien lifeforms that have partially colonised the planet (a thread interwoven throughout the novel wonders what on earth happened to the USA in the 2040s) are compared at times very uncomfortably to the European colonisations of Africa in the 19th century; although interestingly the effects upon the Africans by the Europeans are occasionally portrayed as benevolent and positive, though the overall action was terrible. In the same way, parallels are drawn with the alien entities on Earth; they may heal the sick, but what is their true purpose?

While on the surface Rosewater is an entertaining and gritty gangland-cum-spy thriller with the added spice of aliens and telepaths, at its heart are several central questions. What is it to be alive? Is Kaaro most alive in his youth, when he has all the women and money he could want? Or is that only a false life that he is growing out of? Why do we wait until it is too late to show regret? Is the body meant to be healed constantly? And what is the point of healing the body without the soul?

Even more, Rosewater is a grey moral tale about apathy. Much of the internal dialogue of Kaaro is about how he doesn’t care, how he has no thought for anything outside himself, that he is not a hero. Yet he consistently does things that could be seen as heroic, even if he tells himself that his motives are entirely selfish, be it nursing a wounded stray dog, saving strangers from reanimated corpses, or neutralising suicide bombers. People come into Kaaro’s life that lead him on a journey of self-discovery and an awareness that he need not be alone, and that he is able to care.

This exploration of apathy, appropriately for a novel that is half set in a communal mind-palace, spreads outwards from Kaaro. Many of the characters, be they criminals or spies, have built walls around themselves. The government is indifferent to its agents and its people, the people are indifferent to their politicians and, more importantly, humanity has become apathetic to the alien nestled in the earth beneath their feet and what it might be doing. But while this message is largely bleak and cynical, there are glimmers of hope seeded. If Kaaro can learn to come outside himself, surely others can?