Brian Staveley’s previous trilogy, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, followed intricately intertwined political machinations in a vast world with an extensive history. The Empire’s Ruin begins a new arc set in the same universe and tells the stories of three characters: Gwenna, a member of an elite group of soldiers who serve the Annurian Empire; Akiil, a monk turned con artist; and Ruc, a priest trying to survive in the dangerous swamp town of Dombang. Even readers unfamiliar with Staveley's earlier books will enjoy this lengthy, immersive fantasy.
Staveley frequently narrates from triads of point-of-view characters, and while the three protagonists of The Empire’s Ruin start in dramatically different places, they all serve to tell the same story: the slow, inevitable decline of the Annurian Empire, which is still reeling from the events of the previous trilogy. Ruc experiences the consequences of the empire’s weakened grip firsthand, as a victim of the violent streets of Dombang, which has seceded from the empire. Gwenna carries out the Empress’s orders to explore and scavenge undiscovered territory across a vast ocean as Akiil attempts to work a con on the Empress herself.
The world of The Empire’s Ruin is unremittingly bleak, and while Staveley embraces the physical violence that’s all too common in this world, he focuses far more on the psychological impact of living in a crumbling society. Each character here, even beyond the three main characters, battles external corruption and violence while simultaneously battling their own fears of inadequacy, internal corruption and severe depression (except for Akiil, who is a dirtbag who deserves the comeuppance he will eventually receive).
Gwenna, Akiil and Ruc are all prone to monologuing and soliloquies, to the point that it sometimes feels as if Staveley has written three separate fantasy versions of Hamlet. At times, this focus on introspection can make certain sections feel interminable. And while this feels like an intentional choice on Staveley’s part, to demonstrate each character’s narrow focus on their own struggles, it does hurt the book’s overall pacing.
But by the end of The Empire’s Ruin, most readers will still be itching for more. Those looking for a thoughtful, dark fantasy with action and well-earned twists would do well to pick this one up.