Empire’s Heir by Marian Thorpe

Rating: 4 out of 5.

  • Purchase link: http://mybook.to/Amazon_EmpireHeir
  • Genre:  Historical fantasy
  • Print length: 440 pages
  • Age range: This is an adult novel but suitable for mature teens age 16+
  • Trigger warnings: Off-scene death of a young child
  • Amazon Rating: 5 stars
  • Award –finalist in the Eric Hoffer Award for Small, Academic and Independent Presses.

There are a several books of Homer’s Iliad (certainly one of the most important historical fantasy sagas in the known world) that work quite well as standalone, and are immediate and engaging enough that one doesn’t mind that they are also part of a wider story. One finds the characters in medias res, but the narrative brings them to life, and the story arc within the individual book has enough action to carry you along.

On the other hand there are a couple of books of the Iliad which can be summarised as They Fight.

Now for anyone who is already engaged with the Iliad, the books comprising ‘they fight’ are critical and wonderful.  The ‘they’ are people whose role is crucial to the story.  And the fact that they fight  – which will be to the death – is an ‘edge of the seat’ matter, on which everything will depend. 

On the other hand, nobody should be allowed to read those books first.  They don’t stand alone.  If you don’t know who the people are and what has come before, a book comprising ‘they fight’ really isn’t going to grab you.

Thus it is with Empire’s Heir, a book from the same genre (as above, an ancient and noble tradition).  It’s well written, in a leisurely (slow) literary style; it offers a world that is meticulously crafted (and attractive to modern sensibilities, being very strong on assertive women, including warriors and diplomats, absolutely right-on with LGBTQ rights, stratified and yet respectful to all ranks, good on music and culture etc etc.) A courtly board game (possibly chess, like on the cover?) figures heavily in the book, and seems to provide a metaphor for the diplomatic moves that are going on in the book so perhaps this book is ‘They Play Chess’.  Chess doesn’t work well as a spectator sport for the uninitiated, but I don’t doubt that for people who have read the rest of the books, this will be an important addition to the series, and a reader familiar with the ‘game so far’ may find the various moves made in this book quite delicious. 

But I was told it would be standalone, and it isn’t.  To be fair, it comes complete with lots of front-notes about who everyone is and what the made-up words  mean, and if that’s not enough you can go online and access a password protected site with many pages of ‘story so far’ notes.  I didn’t.  A book that is supposed to be standalone shouldn’t need dozens of pages of explication outside of the book.

As punishment for standing my ground on this, most of whatever was happening went right over my head, even though it may have been hugely impactful to anyone who has read the story so far – there were probably fascinating character developments in the main characters since the previous book (set some years previously) or events that answered questions from the last book, or possibilities hinted at which will make established readers race for the next book. Bringing forward from the last book a toddler princess (who was presumably alive in the previous book?) has died shortly before the start of this one. Much is made of this and it may be shocking, moving, heartbreaking to readers of the previous books, but the death of a fictional child who I’d never met alive didn’t particularly touch me (call me heartless…) and it wasn’t clear how this death added to the plot of this book. Similarly there are smouldering hints of military trouble brewing in some other bit of the empire, which presumably lead on to events in the next book, but which didn’t mean much to me in this one. Reading it as a standalone, what I got by way of a story arc for this book was ‘A bisexual princess agonises about whether she’ll dutifully marry the allocated prince or whether she’ll stick with her lesbian lover.  Her ailing father is  in trouble if she doesn’t marry the prince, but is too woke to push this and she’s not sure what to do.’  That’s not enough of a story arc for a standalone book. Taken as a standalone, the characters – who appeared to be uniformly courteous and well intentioned  – were all very static, with no within-book development that I detected. Very little actually happened.

I’m rating as 4 stars only because I have a very strong suspicion that, like the Iliad, this is a worthwhile saga.  I expect some of the books in the series will have enough self-contained action and character development to work as standalone.   Not this one though.  Give the series a decent chance.  Start with the first one.