Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I’m not goth. I never have been. Not to be rude, but I always thought it was a bit silly.
This book is goth. How goth? The first page of this book contains the sentence: ‘The air outside was thick with the hymn of bats’ wings.’ It’s that goth.
On one hand, I entered this book skeptical, and inclined to dislike what I read.
On the other hand, I like vampires in the fiction I read- specifically vampires as monsters, or monstrous humans. In this book’s case, I don’t feel as though the presence of such monsters overwhelmed my skepticism for the gothiness.
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I was pleasantly surprised by this book, net total. As stated, I came in with low expectations due to the goth-ness, and I was turned off by some of the goth-ness. However, the author’s sheer writing chops took this ‘bad’ book and made it a ‘good’ one. Kudos to the author, his talent made what would otherwise have been an unreadable story for me and made it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
I kinda wound up liking the goth-ness. The author used clever language to evoke emotions, making the earnest goth/grimdark aesthetic seem genuine and earned. I want to give this an A+.
THAT SAID, I can’t give this an A+. I really didn’t like the first half of this story. I was emotionally unengaged for the first half. I’ll explain why later, but for now I’ll just give this…
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B)
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This book’s concept is: “A half-vampire, vampire hunter is imprisoned in a vampire kingdom. Before his execution, he tells his life story to a vampire historian. That story comes in two parts: his early life as an apprentice vampire hunter, and his mid-life adventure for the Holy Grail. Also, MAJOR Christian vibes, and goth af.”
As for execution…
Man, some books are hard to review. On one hand, this book had a killer second half- one of the best last acts I’ve ever read. On the other hand, major sections in the first half of this book was dull. If I were to give just the final act of this book a grade, it would be A+. If I were to give the first half of this book a grade, it would be C.
This is my first Jay Kristoff book, and I can already tell he is a talented author. His use of foreshadowing unconventional combat styles was really well done. The author introduced these unconventional combat styles in the boring first half of the book, so when they were re-used in the second half it really paid off, so I can’t say that the first half of the book didn’t serve a purpose.
I liked the execution of the pseudo-Christian vibes. The main religion in the setting is basically Christianity with the serial numbers filed off. There’s a Redeemer, an Almighty, Martyrs, and Saints. And, yes, a Holy Grail. I wished there were also Pseudo-Jewish and Islamic religions to provide another lens on the setting’s religion, but if you are from a Christian background chances are you’ll understand this.
The source of this book’s greatest strengths, and greatest weaknesses, are the triple timelines in this book. The ‘Present’ moment takes place in the far future, when de Leon is in prison narrating his life story to a historian. The ‘Distant Past’ timeline takes place when de Leon first becomes a vampire hunter and stops a vampire invasion. In the ‘Recent Past’ timeline, de Leon goes on the quest for the Holy Grail. The narrative would switch between the two timelines, telling two different stories at the same time.
Here’s the good in this strategy: the author was able to cleverly conceal important information until the end of the book by hiding it behind the timeline shenanegains. It never felt cheap or forced by the author, but instead it felt like the narrator de Leon was flicking back and forth at appropriate times to explain how events in the past influenced events in the future. Further, the strategy was very good for characterization. I was left wondering how teetotaler holyman de Leon in the ‘Distant Past’ became an alcohol addict apostate in the ‘Recent Past.’
But there’s also bad in the strategy. You remember I mentioned how I found the first half of this book dull? The author was telling two stories, with two different casts of characters at the same time, and in so doing the author took a risk. If the reader of his novel (in this case, me) found the start of neither ‘Recent’ or ‘Distant’ timeline to be gripping, then the reader was in for a long slog. Both ‘recent’ and ‘distant’ timelines had long, sloggy-starts. If the author stuck to one timeline, and then moved to the other after that first timeline was done, then the long-slog would have been cut in half, and I wouldn’t have been nearly as bored.
Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (B-)
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
This book had well-characterized characters, and not-so-well characterized characters.
I harp on frequently that I find the villains in the books I read to be uninteresting due to being evil-for-the-sake-of-evil. Well, the major bad guys in this book are soulless vampires. Evil-for-evil goes with the territory, at least in this author’s spin on the tropes. Would I have liked if the vamps had a more nuanced characterization? Yes. But the author wasn’t telling that sort of story, which I think is a pity. I wish we got more about Jean-Francois.
de Leon was a great character. In the distant past he was a guilty-seeking-atonement half-vampire, who swore himself to a virtuous life. In the recent past, he’s an alcohol addict, maybe-mad heretic who’s lost his faith. Over the course of the distant past plot arc, de Leon goes through a loosening-up plot arc, as he learns that virtue isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and the people who he trusted might not be trustworthy, and he loses his faith as a result. Over the course of the recent past plot arc, de Leon goes through another character arc, where he lets his guard down, makes friends and regains his faith.
It was sweet watching him go through not one but two character arcs; too many fantasy protagonists don’t have even one compelling plot arc.
I liked this book’s Enemies-to-Friends plot arc. The author did a good job of making me hate the enemy to begin with, but somehow the author managed to make me like him despite that hate by the end of the book.
I liked de Leon’s love interest Astrid. They had a ‘wide eyed ingenue coupled with hardened ice queen’ vibe going on (where de Leon was the ingenue) in the distant past, which became ‘loving husband and wife raising a happy daughter’ by the end of the book… with a twist.
I liked most of the silversaint side characters. On the other hand, I did not particularly like the Holy Grail side characters.
Spoiler time! Move on to the next section if you don’t want to be spoiled.
I’ve complained in prior reviews that some of the minor characters seemed to be solely included to be killed. As examples, look at my reviews of ‘Ashes of the Sun‘ and ‘Gideon the Ninth.‘ In all three of these cases, the author includes side characters for the purpose of dying and thereby upping the stakes. I myself made this mistake with my (thusfar) unpublished book.
In theory, it’s okay for an author to kill side characters to up the tension. But in my personal opinion, it only works if the reader cares about the character who dies. In ‘Ashes’ and ‘Gideon,’ the characters who die were not fully fleshed out (in my opinion). The same is true here in ‘Empire.’
This book contains 3 characters (4 with the animal companion) who die at the midpoint climax in order to up the stakes. For two of the characters- Saorise and Raffa- the deaths work for me. They were fleshed out enough for my taste. But for the third, Bellarmy, it didn’t work. I would have preferred if the author cut him, and gave his pagetime to Saorise. She was an interesting character, and needed more time in the sun before she died.
Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B+)
PACING AND STRUCTURE
The majority of this book appears in flashback, and this book contains three different parallel narratives. Structuring this is a little difficult, so bear with me. (I won’t structure the ‘present day’ narrative because it doesn’t have enough meat on it’s bones to worry about.) And, SPOILERS!
‘Distant Past’ timeline
- The act begins with de Leon’s early life, and an introduction to the everyday life in this nightmarish world on the ground level. de Leon was born a peasant, and we get to see a peasant’s life at the beginning of the apocalypse.
- The act ends with the inciting incident, which is when de Leon’s half-vampire superpowers/horror hunger manifest, and he takes a bite out of his girlfriend. He’s forced to go to the monastery to learn how to become a vampire hunter.
- This act contains de Leon’s time in the monastery, making friends and enemies, and then going on an adventure hunting a particularly nasty vampire.
- In this act we learn that de Leon has the magical ability ‘sangromancy’ from his vampire dad, a forbidden technique. Trying to learn more about the technique in the school library, he meets Chloe and Astrid, and they become friends. Together, they try to research how to save the world from the vampire apocalypse.
- He makes an enemy out of de Coste.
- The act ends when he confronts and scares off the nasty vampire, and learns about an oncoming vampire invasion.
- This act begins with de Leon and Astrid having an intimate moment together. de Leon is celibate monk, and Astrid a nun. They are caught and punished for it. When the other warrior monks go to fight the oncoming vampire invasion, he is left behind with the women nuns of the monastery.
- de Coste is revealed to be gay, and is held in prison when the monk army leaves.
- de Leon discovers the real invasion plans, and leads de Coste and the nuns to rebuff them.
- de Leon kills the nasty vampire, and earns the eternal hatred of her father Fabian- but only after learning that the nasty vampire killed his family, including his sister Celene.
- de Leon is knighted as a reward… but when he marries Astrid he’s expelled from the holy order and excommunicated. Greyhand, de Leon’s mentor, does the expelling.
- Astrid and de Leon leave the war and have a daughter… until Fabian comes and kills Astrid and their daughter Patience in revenge.
‘Recent Past’ timeline
- This act begins with de Leon being a drunken sot, who flees and betrays his fellow Churchmen in the Inquisition instead of standing and fighting vampires.
- We meet Chloe and her merry band of adventurers They ask de Leon to join them, but he declines to join them.
- The vampire prince Danton comes, seeking the fleeing Chloe.
- de Leon, wanting revenge for Patience’s death, attacks Danton, scaring him off. (NOTE: at this point in the book, the reveal of Astrid and Pantence’s deaths has not yet been revealed.)
- de Leon then joins Chloe and her adventurers.
- de Leon and the adventurers are seeking the holy grail, which they can use to stop the vampire apocalypse.
- They are confronted by Danton.
- They travel through an eldritch forest.
- They go to the San Guillaume monastery, and it’s been defiled by the Inquisition.
- They are confronted by Danton again, and this time he kills Raffa, Bellarmy and Saorise (and Pheobe the mountain lion pet). Chloe, de Leon and Dior escape by crashing through a frozen river.
- Chloe is separated from them. The rogue in their adventuring party, Dior, is revealed to be a woman… and she’s also the Holy Grail (you know the twist from ‘The DaVinci Code?’ This is a similar twist.)
- The new mission is to get Dior to San Michon, where she can end the vampire apocalypse. Danton, being a vampire, does not want the vampire apocalypse to end. He still pursues them.
- The act begins with de Leon going full protective-father mode with Dior. He just lost his daughter (but it’s not yet been revealed), so he instantly attaches to Dior as an adoptive daughter even though up to now he and Dior (who he thought was a boy) did not like one another.
- They go to a city, where the Inquisition catches up with them. They promptly escape.
- They go to another haunted forest, and are nearly killed.
- They go to de Coste’s fortress, get restocked on supplies.
- They fight with Danton for a final time, using a foreshadowed battle on a frozen river. Vampires can’t cross running water… unless it is frozen. When the heroes blow up the frozen river (mirroring an earlier event in the story), and drown Danton’s army.
- de Leon, Dior and the masked vampire (btw there’s a masked vampire) defeat Danton himself and his surviving lackies.
- It’s revealed that the masked vampire is his sister Celene, killed and brought back by the nasty vampire.
- de Leon and Dior go to the San Michon Monastery, to end the vampire apocalypse. Chloe is already there.
- It’s revealed that to end the vampire apocalypse, they must kill the Holy Grail- aka commit human sacrifice of Dior. Chloe (who up until now seemed like a very kind and devout character) is fully behind this.
- Chloe’s allies slit the throat of de Leon and throw him off a waterfall. Celene saves his life. de Leon confronts Chloe and her allies/de Leon’s childhood friends from the ‘distant past’ timeline, kills them, and saves Dior.
- The vampire apocalypse continues apace.
The author wrote this book in 6 Acts. He wrote it as Act 1 of ‘the distant past’, followed by Act 1 of ‘recent past’, then Act 2 of ‘distant past’… You get the idea. For me, this blended structure didn’t work… until all of the sudden it did work. The interacting narratives bloomed. Simply put, Acts 5&6 had a ton of buildup and foreshadowing in all 4 prior acts. I wasn’t expecting it, but when all of the sudden that buildup paid off, I was left stunned at the author’s skill.
HOWEVER, having 4 out of 6 Acts feel less compelling is a major problem. Those 4 Acts had good parts, but they just kept dragging on. Honestly, I feel as though this book could have been cut down by 100pages to make a tighter whole. As an example, the scenes in the haunted forests never seemed to have an impact on the final outcome of the plot and could have been cut. Similarly, the Inquisition bits needed to either be further fleshed out, or cut (at least in my opinion).
Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B)
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
Eternal night has befallen Elidaen, the sun blotted out by dark magic. The forests are dying, and mankind survives off of the potatoes which can grow in the low-light conditions, and fungus which grows in dead forests. In the dark, mankind is weakened by starvation, while vampires have lost their fear of the sun. They’ve started turning people en-mass and conquering human lands, killing almost everyone. What few survivors are sent to breeding camps to become livestock.
In the growing dark, a few specks of silver still shine. The silversaints of the monastery of San Michon are half-human/half-vampire holy men, trained for war, harnessing their unholy hunger and inhuman strength to fight back against the dark. de Leon is one such holyman, trained for battle and driven by a desire for glory… when he’s young. In the plotarc which takes place 15 years later, he’s an out-of-shape apostate, who’s lost his holy magics due to him being excommunicated, and is unwillingly lassooed into the quest for the Holy Grail.
I liked the plots. I liked how the past events flowed into future events.
Stakes: As I mentioned, I didn’t love the stakes. Belarmy & Co. felt like sacrificial lambs. Their deaths did up the stakes, but I feel that the stakes could have been raised even higher if the dead folks were even more well characterized.
Tension: Not the best, at least in my opinion. Due to this book being narrated by de Leon in the future, I had no fear of him dying. That’s fine though, it happens when you tell this type of story.
Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A-)
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
This author’s voice was very gothic, but that fancy prose was tempered by a lot of f-bombs. At first I was turned off by the goth-y-ness, however, come act 5 and 6, I fell in love. I wound up wanting the author to include some more goth poetry just for the lols, because it would probably be fun. The prose was the literary equivalent of a very goth indie-movie, where the director and actors have a ton of talent but very little money to work with. It’s a good movie, just an unusual one.
Now I’ll be honest: the abundance of f-bombs drew me out of the book. For me at least, the f-bombs clashed with high prose the author otherwise used. Between the swearing and the (at times) over the top gothic prose, I felt that this book was occasionally too edgelord for my taste.
The author used foreshadowing really well. The final battle reaped a dozen seeds sowed throughout the entire novel, making a very resonant climax.
Finally, I need to mention that I read the hardback version which had numerous illustrations. The illustrations helped add a good texture to the book.
There’s a concept in video game design called ‘ludonarrative dissonance,’ where the game’s narrative theme and the game’s gameplay actively conflict with one another (such as a game which preaches nonviolence, even while the gameplay is a shooter game where you kill people). That happened here. de Leon kept saying he hated god, and that god hated him. And yet time and again the adventure party used holy magic to defeat vampires.
The book had a ton of themes, most prominent among them being religion. I wish the author explored it further. As is, the author’s theme was ‘religion is bad,’ which didn’t really work for me because religious holy magic is literally the greatest weapon the heroes have against the vamps. If ‘religion is bad’ and ‘god is bad’ was the book’s real theme, why was holy magic time and again the only reliable weapon against the dark? That is dissonant. Chloe (the ultimate antagonist) was motivated by her religion and faith, but it was her religion and faith which saved the adventure party multiple times up until that point. This theme become even weirder when it’s put in the context of the 1500’s Catholic dress-up.
I have the feeling that the author was going for the theme of ‘organized religion is bad, but individual devout people can be good.’ For me, the author failed in that theme. Why? Both the inquisition, human sacrificing lunatics and the heroes can channel holy magic. By letting the human sacrificing crazies perform holy magic, the author more or less explicitly gives the in-universe divine seal of approval to human sacrifice. (At least in my reading of the text. I don’t know if this is the author’s intended reading of the text; if the author did intend the Almighty in this book to be pro-human sacrifice and pro-torture, this is some nihilistic Bakker storytelling.)
If the author’s intended vision was ‘organized religion is bad, but individual devout people can be good,’ this book’s theme didn’t work for me. There were almost no good devout people in this book. Both Raffa and Chloe were human sacrificers, same with everyone at the Ordo Argent. The inquisition are pro-torture. The priest in de Leon’s hometown wasn’t exactly pleasant either, and we heard stories of bishops who take advantage of their stations. The only ‘good’ devout person was de Coste, and he’s an antagonist for 3/4s of the book.
If it was the author’s intension to say ‘organized religion is bad, but individual devout people can be good,’ he didn’t include enough individual, good devout people to make it work, and the evil devout people were just as capable of repelling vampires using holy magic as the good ones. Why can the evil human sacrificers repel evil, when they are themselves evil? This is dissonant.
I’d compare this to the Dresden Files, where there are multiple members of the Church who are both good and bad. Dresden himself doesn’t think too fondly of organized religion, but he can’t paint with a broad brush about the Church itself because of Michael, Forthill, Shiro and the rest.
I give the Authorial Voice: (A-)
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
(Note: It doesn’t have to be super original. If it uses unoriginal tropes, does it use those tropes well/honoring their source.)
This book takes place during the early years of a vampire apocalypse. Similar stories have been told before; I’m thinking of the Old Kingdom books (especially Sabriel) where zombies and ghosts have basically devoured the entire kingdom except for a few holdout cities defended by running water. I’m also thinking of ‘Sunshine,’ and urban fantasy where mankind and vampire civilizations just finished an all-out-war with one another where every major city (like Hong Kong and New York) was destroyed. Mankind won- barely- and now everyone is trying to forget that in the dark places the vampires still lurk, waiting for round two.
By happenchance, these are two of my favorite books during my adolescence, and have influenced my personal writing greatly. It’s no wonder that I like this book, because it’s setting is so similar to those ones. I’m biased to like this.
Here’s the thing: this book has MAJOR Christian vibes. It oozes off every page. Truth told, I didn’t love it. The author didn’t try to make the religion his own version of Christianity with unique rituals and traditions; the faith in this book was more or less carbon-copied Christianity with just the names replaced.
I would have loved it if the author had a little fun and did his own version Christianity instead of carbon-copying 1500’s Catholicism. Now all cards on the table, I’m a comparative religion nerd. If you read through my reviews on my blog, you’ll see I’ve read numerous books and lectures on the subject. In this case, I was biased to dislike it. I didn’t think it was very creative. I’m agnostic, but even I didn’t like it because it felt like an anti-religion screed more than anything else. The author made some good points in his criticisms of organized religion, but he didn’t bring anything new to the table. I could read ‘His Dark Materials’ if I wanted to see this done with more nuance.
I give the Setting: (B+)
- This isn’t a writing lesson, but a reading one. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. I was expecting a bad goth novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. The moral of the story is that I should try new things!
- The author did a very good job of establishing weapons early on (running water, black ignis), and then using them in new, creative ways later. This felt really good to read.
- The dueling narrative structure of ‘distant past’ and ‘recent past’ can work. It had flaws in this case- this book had a really long slow start because both timelines had slow starts- however the payoff for mingling the two timelines was fantastic and totally worth the slow start.
- The characters are always actively doing something. There are few to none ‘talky’ chapters, where the characters sit around and make plans. Instead the heroes are constantly on the run, or fighting, discovering ancient secrets. They still make plans and talk with one another, but they do so while doing something else at the same time. This made the story feel propulsive, always moving forward.
- de Leon was a fantastic character because he was the focus of 2 different timeline stories. I loved watching his character growth from naïve peasant to hardened holyman to excommunicated warrior who hates everything to rediscovering his faith and opening himself up to (platonic) love.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- People in the mood for occasionally beautiful prose, mixed with profanity.
- Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
- Adult, but with YA crossover (16+).
- Adventure novels
- Monstrous vampires, not the sexy kind.
- Goth Christianity, with holy magic to fight against the dark
- Grimdark. There are a few paragraphs of torture, lots of death, but no sexual assault.
- There is a good love story.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book. While not without flaws, the author’s aesthetic choices made it stand out from the crowd. This is a fun, if dark book with lush worldbuilding.
Genres/Tagwords: Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Religious Fantasy, Vampires, Quest Fantasy, Adventure, Flintlock Fantasy, Grimdark, Gothic
- ‘Sabriel’ by Garth Nix (In Terms of an adventure novel, taking place during an undead apocalypse)
- ‘Interview with a Vampire’ (I’ve never read that book myself, but ‘Empire of the Vampire’ is literally an interview with a vampire)
- ‘His Dark Materials.’ (This book has strong themes surrounding religion.)
- ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir (In terms of being a very goth book, with swear words.)
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
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- Why you should read ‘Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature’ by Michael D. C. Drout
- A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir
- A Review of ‘The Book of Rumi’ by Rumi
- A Review of ‘Unsouled’ by Will Wight
- A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce
- A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene