With Sins of Empire, Brian McClellan cements himself as one of the brightest young stars writing fantasy today. The Powder Mage trilogy was no fluke (you can find my reviews of those three books here, here, and here). The magic systems are inventive and cool, the setting refreshing, and McClellan writes big battle scenes better than just about anyone.
Sins of Empire is the first book in the Gods of Blood and Powder series, a sequel series to The Powder Mage trilogy. There is really no reason not to start with the Powder Mage trilogy (pick up Promise of Blood here), but Sins of Empire is an easily accessible entre into McClellan’s world. It takes place a continent away and ten years after the events of the Powder Mage trilogy. One of the minor characters from the first series—Vlora—is now a major POV character, and other characters from the first series show up, but you don’t need to know who they are to enjoy the book.
I’m going to spend some time talking about the setting. I complained in my review of Promise of Blood that the setting was a little too generic-Europe. A change in venue solves that. The tech is that of the late-1700s/early-1800s. As in our world, it is a time of revolutions. A French Revolution-esque revolution in Adro served as the setting for the first series. Sins of Empire takes place in Fatrasta, another continent and a former colony of Kez (the country serving as an antagonist in the first series), that won its independence roughly ten years ago as well. Landfall is the capital city. Most of the action takes place there. The residents are largely Kressian (i.e., tracing this ancestry back to Kez), but there is a large Palo population. The Palo are distinctly red-headed and freckled and draw heavily from both Native American and Irish history. Fatrasta more generally isn’t easily tied to a real world equivalent, although comparisons to the United States and Singapore seem most natural.
There are three major/POV characters. The first is Vlora. As I mentioned, she was a minor character in the Powder Mage trilogy. Since the events of that series, she left the Adran army, taking the cream of the crop to form the Riflejack mercenary company. Notably, this includes Olem, Tamas’ primary aide from the first series. The book opens with the Riflejacks having re-seized a fort on the frontier. Wooden frontier forts aren’t much against canons, but Vlora is disconcerted to find a body garbed in swamp dragon (gator) leathers and bone axes. A body surrounded by dozens of dead from her company. The mystery of the dragonmen will be a key plot point when the Riflejacks head back to Landfall to take a job hunting down a Palo insurgent. Vlora is a powder mage. That is, she has magical abilities tied to gunpowder. Snorting gunpowder gives her super strength, reflexes, senses, etc. She can detonate powder. Or fire an early modern rifle accurately at distances of over a mile. We didn’t get to see much of Vlora in the first series, but I’m glad to see her come into her own here. Vlora is the biggest tie to the old series—she still wears the scars, physical and otherwise, from the revolution.
The other two POV characters are new. The first is Ben Styke. Mad Ben Styke, that is, formerly of the Mad Lancers, heroes of the Fatrastan revolution. Currently of a labor camp just outside of Landfall. He’s not the man he used to be. Surviving a firing squad—twice!—will do that to a man. He has a crippled hand and walks with a limp. But he’s still 6-and-a-half feet tall and a killer. He has powerful enemies seeking to ensure he never leaves, but a lawyer named Tampo gets him out and gives him a job.
“So,” Styke said. “Who do you want me to kill?”
“Have you ever heard of Lady Vlora Flint?” Tampo asked.
McClellan was right. Mad Ben Styke is my favorite character. The final POV character, on the other hand, was a disappointment. But then, for a spy like Michel, being forgettable is a feature, not a bug. Michel is a member of the Blackhats, the secret police that help keep the Lady Chancellor in power and the people in Landfall in line. They’re not very good at being secret, what with their distinctive bowlers and all, but whatever. Michel is tasked by Fidelis Jes—the head of the Blackhats and the chief antagonist for the book—with serving as Vlora’s Blackhat liaison and with hunting down the man responsible for using Blackhat badges to print propaganda pamphlets. His investigation quickly leads him to Tampo. That should allow for ample overlap between Michel’s and Vlora’s and Styke’s storylines, but there was less than I would have liked.
Things immediately begin to fall apart. Promise of Blood started off with a bang—revolution and mass murder. Sins of Empire starts off on a slow burn. McClellan introduces several mysteries and lets them slowly unfold. This is a writer confident in his storytelling abilities. There will be several twists along the way, along with some action. And, of course, we will see a large scale battle before it is all said and done. One hell of a battle.
5 of 5 Stars.