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.
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.
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!