Magic and mystery, trust and betrayal, Empire of Exiles has it all. Set in the walled city of Semilla, Erin M. Evans spins an intriguing tale of murder and secrets that are forced into the light in the devastating aftermath of a seemingly unexplainable attack.
Quill, an apprentice scribe, must decide who he can trust as he investigates further into the murders his friend is accused of. His investigations lead him down a rabbit hole of lies and secrets where everything and everyone is connected and the truth depends on who you ask. The deeper he digs the more danger he’s in, and if he digs too deep he may never get out. To make things worse, it’s not just his life but the lives of his new friends, and the fate of the entire empire, that depend on the choices he makes.
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Orbit for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of Empire of Exiles contains some spoilers!]
Semilla: a city apart from the world
The city of Semilla is a closed system. Several hundred years ago changelings threatened all of mankind. Shapeshifters that could take on the appearance of anyone were infiltrating the monarchies and taking them down from the inside. Humanity was losing the fight and the city of Semilla offered to take in all refugees.
The surrounding kingdoms all fled to the city and the best sorcerers from each kingdom joined forces to create a giant wall of salt and iron around the city. Changelings are hurt by both salt and iron. They were unable to cross the wall and the war was considered over. The only rule is no one in, no one out.
The rulers of Semilla graciously offered full citizenship to everyone who sought refuge with them. The royal family continued to rule the city but the heads of the other kingdoms that joined them were honored and consulted on matters. The different groups lived peaceably together and even began to mix and intermarry (although there were some purists, as there always are).
One thing to note is that not all of the new citizens of Semilla were exactly human. For example, one species has octopus-like lower limbs (read tentacles, they can move around on land but like to relax in tubs). Another species has a “dark eye” in addition to their human eyes. The dark eye allows them to see infrared light.
A tenuous balance in Empire of Exiles
So all these different races and rulers are all held within this city. Everyone seems to be getting along but there is always tension between the members of the different ruling classes that remember when they were their own separate kingdoms. Twenty-three years ago one of these people, Duke Redolfo, took advantage of this simmering dissatisfaction to start a rebellion. The rebellion was eventually put down and Redolfo was put to death for his treachery. People mostly moved on but cracks remained.
Now Quill, a young scribe, is sent along with his master and another apprentice, Karimo, to retrieve items that belonged to Redolfo and were instrumental to his rebellion. The requests cause some ripples of unease at the Imperial Archives, a central storage place for all the wealth and treasures of the different kingdoms that make up Semilla.
Before the request can be fulfilled, disaster strikes. Karimo kills a high-ranking nobleman and attacks several others before killing himself. Quill walks in just as Karimo makes a cryptic declaration and slits his own throat.
The authorities want to quickly write the attack off as the actions of a madman but Quill refuses to believe it. He knows Karimo and he simply cannot understand how the man he knew could possibly have done what everyone says he did, what Quill himself saw him do. So he begins to investigate on his own.
With the reluctant help of a generalist (read supervisor), a specialist from the archives, and an investigator who agrees that things don’t add up, Quill sets out to prove his friend’s innocence. What they discover is a plot, bigger than anyone could imagine, that threatens to destroy the entire empire.
Magic through affinities
Empire of Exiles has a different take on magic from most stories I’ve read. Some people are born with “affinities” for different materials. Those materials can be basically anything, bronze, glass, ink, bone, etc. Someone with an affinity is highly sensitive to the material they connect with. It’s almost like the material talks to them. They can know all kinds of things about an item constructed from their special material, such as where it was made, how old it is, how it is crafted, and so much more.
If their affinity is strong enough, they are called specialists. Specialists not only glean information from their element but can manipulate it as well. If they are especially powerful they may be sorcerers. Sorcerers have extreme control over their element and are considered holy by some of the families in Semilla.
But there is a dark side to these affinities. The forces that grant these powers go in and out of alignment (think of the tides that are affected by the moon). When someone with an affinity is in alignment the pull they feel towards their element can be overpowering.
If they aren’t careful they can “spiral”. Spiraling is very dangerous and if not stopped, ends with the specialist becoming completely encased in their element, lost to the world. It is possible to spiral at any time, and the more powerful someone is the closer they dance to the edge, but it is most dangerous when an element is in alignment.
Luckily a spiral can be stopped. It isn’t easy but if someone can throw a lifeline to the person spiraling, and if that person is willing to grab on, they can be pulled back. It is a different and somewhat scary way of viewing magic.
An equal society
Empire of Exiles is a great book and I really enjoyed unraveling the mysteries within it. But I think my favorite part may have been the gender equality of the Semillan society. Women were represented in every level of power and in every career included in the novel.
No one batted an eye that two of the best defenders of the wall are women. No one makes a fuss that the investigative chief is a woman. The female scribes stay in the same tower as the male scribes. The city is currently led by an Empress.
But it’s not an all-women society either. Before the current Empress, the city was led by an Emperor. There are plenty of male investigators, scribes, and warriors. It was just amazing how there were also women in these roles and it was seen as completely natural. Absolutely no tension is created by the simple fact of a role being filled by a woman.
Evans offers a very nice change from other fantasy books in this regard. So often authors will say “well yes this is a fantasy but I based it on such and such culture so I kept all the misogynic attitudes from that time” instead of saying “this is a fantasy so let’s change things!” But Evans decided to give her culture an ancient feel with her own twist and the story is infinitely better for it.
I hope other authors follow her example and stop perpetuating backward ideas about women in their stories for the sake of “authenticity” (as if that’s a thing in a fantasy).
Erin M. Evans offers us an intriguing new fantasy book series
Empire of Exiles is the first book in Erin Evans’ Books of the Usurper series. Evans does leave a leading question to carry on into the next book but she manages to pretty satisfactorily wrap up the mystery that drives Empire of Exiles so my annoyance wasn’t too high with her.
I really loved the characters and there was some great development by some of them. The overall mystery was engaging and the dangers Quill and his friends faced were exciting. There was some romantic tension but it stayed as tension and didn’t interfere with the overall adventure really. Overall a very nice offering from Evans.
My Rating: 9/10
Empire of Exiles by Erin M. Evans is available now. Do you plan on reading it? Let us know over on Twitter or The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our latest book review, The Last Raven!
Book Review: The Last Raven by Steve McHugh