Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Hollow Empire - Sam Hawke


Hollow Empire is the follow up to Sam Hawke’s excellent City of Lies. And, not to give the game away, but it has all the cool stuff that made me like that book so much, but also manages to bring in a whole bunch of new cool stuff, to make it better. 

Yes, I’m gushing a bit. But you know what, this book is worth it. It’s focused on politics, on reading people, on small scale actions. On poisonings and looking for the twitch at the corner of someone's eye that says they know more than they’re telling. On struggling within political institutions, and redefining those institutions. On the conflict between the rural and the urban, and on assassinations in the dark. On what people will do when they limit themselves, and what they can do when they refuse to accept those limitations. And, as ever, on the cost of past secrets in the future.

It’s...well, it’s a big book, alright? And there is just so, so much going on. It’s one part political thriller, one part epic fantasy, one part family drama, all parts awesome.

The story opens shortly after City of Lies, and once again centres on Kalina and Jovan. Siblings, one a diplomat and consummate politician, one a proofer, secret protector of the Chancellor from poisons, they form the heart of the book. Their relationship is warm, loving, and occasionally fraught. They work hard at being more one with each other, but secrets move behind everyones eyes. They love each other deeply, and that affection is visible and convincing on the page. Its a relationship of shared history, some of it filled with poison and blades in the dark. The banter is as witty and charming as ever, and both of them, in their interleaved viewpoint chapters, serve as smart, incisive commentators on each other. They’re a wonderful pair really, given agency and intelligence to see the threats before them, and working through them with skill and talent - even as they struggle to uncover the mysteries around them, the reader is walking beside them, knowing what they know, struggling to piece things together, as they do, before it is too late. 

Incidentally, I want to talk about voice. Both Kalina and Jovan have utterly unique styles of thinking, and of talking. The prose given to each is distinct, memorable, and helps shape our view of each of them, and the world they inhabit. Even though they can be in the same room as each other, their perspectives, their lived experiences, can be very different, and that comes out clearly in the text. Both of them read like individuals. Kalina is fierce, ambitious, hopeful, and has a determination borne of injury and a struggle with long term illness - a topic, incidentally, which was approached sympathetically and with deft hands in City of Lies, and continues to be so here. Kalina suffers her pain as the price of her existence, but is not defined by it, and her struggles and vulnerability are very human. Jovan is more paranoid (which, given his occupation is understandable), given to obsessing over details, and falling into spirals of emotional harm alongside insight; but while this is a facet of his character, it is, again, not the only one, and he’s given the room to breathe, to shape and define himself which helps keep him real. Both, both siblings are realised with an emotional depth and intellectual ferocity which makes them come off as heroes. They do have their flaws; underestimating adversaries, trusting where they maybe shouldn’t, or not where they should, impulsiveness, caginess; but those flaws highlight their strengths, too. They highlight a loyalty to friends, a love of city and country, a willingness to do the right thing, sharp minds, and a capacity for love and affection, which mix with their flaws to give us complex protagonists whom we might recognise if we saw them in the street - or, indeed, in the mirror. 

Incidentally, the City is as delightful as ever. Thronged with a population scarred by war, it;s nevertheless bursting with vitality. You can feel the cultural fusion, the slow mixing of an intra-society gumbo, coming together. There are those appearing from outside the city now, stepping into its streets with caution and optimism both, looking for opportunity, looking to help shape the path of their nation. And then there are the old embedded interests, looking to do not just what’s right for their world, but what’s right for them. And old grudges between aristocratic families of privilege are as liable to flair up lethally as newer ones between the city and the country; and, indeed, one can find odd allies all over. The city though, is the beating heart of the setting - and oh my, does it feel alive. 

We do see a bit more of the setting this time too; in part that’s an exploration of rural villages, more isolated areas with communities and mores different to those we’re used to. But there’s also other nations entirely, come to see what all the fuss is about in this newly reshaped city state, From towering, expansionist Empires to more sparsely settled lands dependent on co-operation and with a penchant for river sports and log tossing, everyone has sent some observers to see what happens next - and their contrasts with the folk we’re used to, themselves a pretty diverse bunch, are exciting and shocking in equal measure. There’s a growing sense of a larger world, which has its eye on the city, andis making itself more known for the first time. You can almost feel the map unrolling, as the political perspective grows ever wider. 

The story; I can’t talk about the story without spoiling it, because it’s so good. It’s a delicately woven mesh of moving parts. Character motivations, old secrets, new grudges. Quiet affections and slow poisons. There’s a whole heck of a lot going on. But you’ll walk with the characters every step of the way, trying to work out what’s going on. And I can promise that it’s worth it. There’s murders, and tragedies. Quiet triumphs and some truly epic moments of magic. Reversals, betrayals and unexpected loves. The politics is byzantine, the intrigue compelling, the whole edifice of the story ticking over like a well crafted clock. But it’s the human elements that make the story. You’ll be turning the pages at 2AM like I was, to see what happens to your favourite characters, to see how (or if!) they get out of their mess this time, wanting to see what will happen next, to unmask the villain(s) and cheer on our champions. This really is a thriller, a slow, simmering burn of tension slowly ratcheting up until you’re biting nails at every turn of the page, gasping at every revelation, wanting to see how the story ends, and not wanting it to end. 

I really enjoyed City of Lies, but Hollow Empire is better, and that’s probably the highest praise I can bring to bear. If you were wondering if this sequel was worth picking up, I can only say this: yes, yes it is. Go and get a copy, right now!

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