Review | Seven Deaths of an Empire – G.R. Matthews

About the Book

The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.

General Bordan has a lifetime of duty and sacrifice behind him in the service of the Empire. But with rebellion brewing in the countryside, and assassins, thieves and politicians vying for power in the city, it is all Bordan can do to protect the heir to the throne.

Apprentice Magician Kyron is assigned to the late Emperor’s honour guard escorting his body on the long road back to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by his own people, even a magician’s power may fail when enemies emerge from the forests, for whoever is in control of the Emperor’s body, controls the succession.

Seven lives and seven deaths to seal the fate of the Empire.

550 pages (hardcover)
Published on June 22, 2021
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This book was given to me by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I feel like I’ve known Matthews for a hundred years. I haven’t, but sometimes when I look at all my time online in the genresphere, its Matthews that I feel like I’ve known the longest. He was in the very first SPFBO, and we’ve talked on and off through the years. I’ve admired his tenacity, and how hard he works at his books and his writing career. When I saw him land a traditional publishing contract, I was over the moon with happiness for him. If anyone deserves it, it’s this guy.

I will tell you, right off the bat a few things stuck out to me. First, I’ve been editing a lot of epic fantasy this year, of the empires falling and fate of the world hangs in the balance kind. And that’s fine. I love it, I really do, but when I do my free time reading, I’m looking for something else. I will say, one thing that instantly stuck out to me here was the fact that the book was a standalone. Epic setting, epic manner of storytelling, but a standalone. I was excited to see how Matthews worked an epic story into one volume, and I was also excited about the change of pace from what I’ve been editing. 

The other thing that stuck out to me was the narrow focus. In fact, I’m not really sure if this would be considered epic fantasy. It’s a sort of delightful blurring of boundaries between epic and… not epic, and I really enjoyed that. Told with two points of view, with a fairly narrow focus on events, this book tells the story about one empire, through the perspectives of two people. One, being a magician’s apprentice Kyron, and the other being an old general named Bordan. Through both flashbacks and forward momentum, the story unfolds and slowly the reader sees how it all fits together. 

It’s this narrow focus that really gives this book an edge. Through two incredibly different perspectives, and positions in society, readers are brought into the struggle that is unfolding as the long-reigning emperor is on the cusp of death and a power grab ensues. The two point of view characters are vastly different, and yet both equally ruthless in their own ways. One uses magic as his tool, and the other uses weapons. They come from different places, different backgrounds, and have different personalities, and I thought they played off of each other extremely well. This is a book about what happens when an empire shows a moment of weakness, and it’s superbly well done and explored in a careful, though provoking manner.

I will say, this is one type of story I love. I enjoy politics, and political maneuvering, subtle behind-the-scenes power plays, and then potential power vacuums that could have catastrophic outcomes, depending. This is the kind of story that grips me in real life, and it’s no different in fantasy. Matthews really excels here, never being too obvious, never hitting the reader over the head with important points and the clues he drops along the way. He trusts the reader will follow where he’s going, and he establishes a firm foundation on which the book unfolds. There are a lot of twists and turns here as well, things I didn’t expect, treacherous deeds that took the plot unanticipated directions.

The book both feels large and small at the same time. It would have been so easy to turn this into a sprawling, world-encompassing plot, but he never let it get out of hand. There is a sense of the wider world, of long-range impacts, of things that happen other places, but Matthews keeps the focus pretty narrow for a fantasy like this. I think that’s one of the book’s primary strengths. It is comparatively narrow in scope, and while a lot happens here, and the implications are vast, the narrow focus really allowed Matthews to get into the meat of this story, flesh it out, polish it, and make it really shine.

One place where Matthews really shows his chops is with atmosphere, the creeping dread that seems to fill every page until the very end. I found myself clenched with anticipation throughout the entire book, and it made me genuinely feel for the characters, the people in this empire. It is very rare that I see atmosphere used to its fullest potential the way I did here. I will say, the book does take some time to get going. It is, in some respects, what I’d qualify as a “slow burn” but once you hit the halfway point, all that development is shown to be necessary and things really get going. That atmosphere I mention is the one-two punch the book needs to make all this matter for the reader, and it is masterfully done. 

If there was one minor complaint I had, it was with some of the descriptions, which I think could have used a bit of detail and focus. There were scenes where I wanted to more clearly see the surrounds and it lacked just a touch of the specificity needed to bring me there.

All in all, Seven Deaths of an Empire was a magnificent, thoughtful, highly readable account of what happens when a strong empire is thrust into unpredictable transition. It’s full of political intrigue and dripping with potent, dark atmosphere. This is a must read for fantasy fans who enjoy political machinations. 

4/5 stars