Seven Deaths of an Empire is a sprawling work of epic fantasy from G.R. Matthews. It begins, as one might expect, with a death.And, in the interest of full disclosure, it doesn’t stop with just one. What it does do is give us a complex, clever storyline with narrative threads interwoven between two disparate viewpoints in different places. What it does do is give us a world which has familiar cultural undertones, and asks thoughtful questions about Empires, and what they are actually for. What it does do is do this through the lens of some compelling characters, and by providing intriguing mystery, kinetic, bloodthirsty combat, top-quality dialogue and believable relationships. This book is the whole package.
To be fair, at over five hundred pages, it is also a pretty big package. But it’s all useful stuff. Each page carries with it some snippet of character, a witticism that makes you chuckle, another strand in the world building tapestry, or a moment that makes you think you know what’s going on - having already made you think that, and switch dit up on you a couple of times before.
But I digress.
The Empire is the world. Everyone outside its boundaries is a barbarian. Or at least, so those in the Empire would have you believe. And the Empire thinks it has a mission to civilise. By which it means, to assimilate. It does so by fire and sword, cracking skulls and leaving trails of bodies across a continent over centuries. One strand of the narrative follows the aftermath of one of these expeditions, into the dark forests of some as-yet unconquered tribes. The clash of cultures is as much soft power as armed force. Those outside the Empire have no desire to pay its taxes, no desire to kneel to an Emperor who burns their woods and would throw away their religion. But the Empire is there anyway, legions invincible, or at least endless. And it brings learning, and books, and indoor plumbing in its wake. Are those within it better off than those without? It’s something to ponder, and I think the text explores the nuances of liminality on the borders of strong polities really well. And it makes the forest feel alive, from the close packed trees and dark mulch underfoot, to the people within who fade in and out of sight of their adversaries, and have a rich sociocultural life of their own. And as an army retreats back through that forest to the safety of its borders, we get to see some of Imperial military life. Harsh, sometimes, hierarchical, but also a place of opportunity, and one where comrades stand by one another; where the people in the machine help bend or shape the machine.And they do so with religion and blood, yes, but also with magic, and ties of friendship and history.
The other strand of story is deep within the Empire, in the capital. Here the lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy is made visible, but so too we see some regular people; all of whom seem fairly content with their lot. Sure, there are problems, but they’re not living in forests and crapping in compost heaps like barbarians. But this is a place of byzantine politics, patient schemes, and, well,murder. We’re here for the aristocracy, for their backbiting and human tragedy and moments of genuine growth - and, of course, the potential for their demise. But the world, the Empire, the marble palaces and the stone dry hills, the thronging streets and the simmering conflict between religion and magic - they all combine to help us see a living, breathing world.
The viewpoints. Well, I don’t want to give much away. But we get The General, and The Magician; one steeped in the service of the Empire, mired in old struggles and old loyalties, and keen to hand over the reigns of power. The other is younger, more idealistic about their role in things, but also perhaps naive, and willing to question their assumptions. Each brings their own biases, their own weaknesses and strengths as a narrator to the table - and it’s to the author’s credit that each is a totally unique voice. When the General speaks, you can hear the world weariness seeping through his bones, the rigid armour of old competence and quiet secrets. And in the Magician is youth and hope and that simmering insecurity, and a need to do something, to choose to be better, to be, even if changing, doing, being can end badly and bloodily. In both cases, their inner lives are opened to us - well, mostly. And What we see is rich and detailed and plausible; these are people, living in the spaces we see, with friendships and enmities and, well, everything that makes people..er..people.
The story I really won’t spoil. But yes, you can count the number of deaths. It’s in the title. Eqal parts murder investigation, explosive combat, suspense thriller and, well, magical shenanigans, this is all great fun. There’s enough twists and turns here that you could probably use the book to crack open a bottle of wine, and enough heartfelt emotion left on the page to make you laugh or weep. It’s a good story; at times a tragic, poignant one, at times hilarious, often thoughtful, and always interesting. If you’re a one for big fantasy tomes, this is one for you; and if you aren’t, generally, you might give this a look anyway, because it has so much going on that it may well grab your attention and not let go, much like it did mine.
A very fun read!