Fantasy books are, at times, books that I struggle to get in to. Any book that gives me a chapter or two of pure world-building and history to start the book loses my interest as I just want to get on with the story. Build the world as you go, weave it into the story. Too much information about the world at the beginning and I won't remember half of it anyway so it'll be lost on me, so I tend to stick with a select few fantasy authors that I know. No one wants to start a book and be bored straight away. Ones that drip in bits of the world around the story, even if it's someone explaining how magic works later in the book, are the fantasy books that I like. So I'm selective, that is until I had the opportunity to read/review Seven Deaths of an Empire, by G.R. Matthews and Rebellion Publishing imprint Solaris, as something about the description and that beautiful cover (I know, shouldn't judge it by the cover) just screamed at me that I needed to read it - and boy am I glad that I read it!
The story is about seven lives and seven deaths that seal the fate of the Empire. Each chapter switches between the two main characters of the story - General Bordan and the apprentice Magician Kyron. The seven deaths and lives are scattered throughout and shape the Empire and the two characters we follow. The side characters, whether they live or die, all have a part in shaping how the book unfolds.
The two main characters though are General Bordan, a man who has dedicated his life in service of the Empire, in charge of the army and protecting the heir to the throne, and Apprentice Magician Kyron, assigned with escorting the late Emperor's body and his honour guard on the long road back to the capital of the Empire whilst battling tribes in the forests and the priests who hate magicians. Whoever controls the Emperor's body, controls the succession to the throne, so getting the body back to the capital is paramount.
Seven Deaths of an Empire is easily one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. My favourites are books like The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, and I honestly didn't think I'd find a book that came close to enjoying as much as I do Sanderson's work. There's a lot of Roman influences in the story that is apparent throughout with the use of Roman numerals for each chapter, mentions of gladiators, soldiers using gladius swords, and how the soldiers appear. It's a delight that gives you little nods towards the Romans without actually being Roman. You get introduced to the priesthood, magicians, soldiers, generals, tribes, forest, lore and forbidden magic and the world in general, but not too much. There's definitely plenty of room to expand, but is there a need to when the real joy is how well-balanced everything is? There's politics, action, brutality, humour and sadness. Magic explained enough that you know how it works but still have some questions. You know bits of the history of the Empire, and like our own world it's passed down information so might not be entirely accurate. Everything is expertly delivered with nothing feeling out of place and nothing feeling like filler to add to a word count.
We need to talk about the prince for a moment though. I had Game of Thrones Joffrey level hate for him. A young prince grieving the loss of his dad, by my God was he awful. Get's good advice and just ignores it all and wants everyone to bow down to him and to kill anyone that doesn't conform to his way of thinking. A proper rule by fear would-be Emperor. Granted, things could have gone differently, but he was an awful, scared boy who ultimately just wants to be a strong Emperor.
Throughout the story, it's clear that something is wrong in the Empire - a trailer, someone that wants to be Emperor that isn't in line to gain it. I was pretty sure I knew who was the traitor was, even though I had moments of doubt. I was right, partly, with there still being room for a surprise which was great. I thought I had it all sussed out but did not and looking back there are plenty of reasons why I picked why I knew who it was as well as plenty of reasons to doubt that. But like any good story, it's never that simple and the eventual reveal of what's been going on just made everything fall into place.
There are more surprises though than just who has been trying to take over the Empire. Each chapter starts with a snippet of the past which are easy to follow through to the end, which near the end becomes part of a reveal that I definitely did not see coming. The reveal happens in the main story which is then picked up again in the pre-chapter snippets and suddenly they all make sense. Another character had a reveal that was a surprise even though it seems the hints were there all along. I, and I imagine others reading the book will be, was too focused on the main issue of the traitor. There are many surprises that brings the story together. Some you might be able to guess or work out, but you surely won't get them all before the end.
SEVEN DEATHS OF AN EMPIRE is a thoroughly enjoyable book that I recommend to anyone who loves their fantasy with loads of intrigue, deception, action, and magic. It'll take one hell of a book to top this one in 2021. This is a fantasy book that grips you from the first page to the last and even though it's a complete story but I'd like to think that the ending has left a door open for a sequel. Even if there's not, I hope that this isn't the last we see of this world that G.R. Matthews has created as there's so much potential here for more. I enjoyed it so much I even went and bought some of his previous books to read.