Brian McClellan, Blood of Empire (2019)

Blood of Empire

Author: Brian McClellan

Title: Blood of Empire

Pages: 672

Format: Paperback

The final installment in the final (at least for now) trilogy in McClellan’s flintlock fantasy series set in the Powder Mage universe, Blood of Empire had to face a slew of high expectations – and I’m happy to say the book meets quite a few of them. After setting the stakes in Sins of Empire, ramping up the pressure in Wrath of Empire, Blood of Empire takes some of the action to another continent entirely, into the heart of the Dynize, while at the same time providing a satisfying array of battles and revolutions in Fatrasta. In short, Blood of Empire offers a fast-paced, high-stakes entertainment and provides an enjoyable conclusion to the Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy.

The source of McClellan’s success in the second Powder Mage trilogy lies in my opinion in the creation of a well-composed set of varied, likeable and believable characters. There’s nobody as charismatic and intriguing as Tamas, and let’s be honest – if I were to read a whole book about Taniel, I’d sooner throw it out (shooting myself is out of the question, I have honed my preservation skills to perfection :P). That said, the team of Mad Ben Styke, spy-turned-revolutionary Michael Brevis, and – surprise, surprise – angry wallflower-turned-able general Vlora Flint tries their best to even the field, and they actually come close. It doesn’t hurt that they have a superb supporting cast, with Olem, Ichtracia, Celine, Yaret, Orz and Etepali.

McClellan must have realized that Vlora’s development in previous installments left something to be desired, because this time he actually devoted a lot of space and time and effort to her story, making her character if not outright likeable, then at least believable and well-balanced. Her trauma, anger and desperation, the ugly parts of her that she tries – and sometimes fails – to suppress, her pain and the heavy burden of responsibility toward her compatriots and her army – all of these made her surprisingly my favorite character in this installment. Vlora’s growth is all the more striking for the fact that here she finally grows up to be herself – no longer in the shadow of her father or brothers, she becomes her own person. It’s not a painless process, and not without sacrifices, but hers is the most rewarding story arc in Blood of Empire.

Michel Brevis also did some growing up in this installment, and it was nice to finally see him appreciate and learn to accept all the aspects of his shadowy work, and not only beating himself to death with his guilty conscience. His choices, though seemingly small, had surprisingly far-reaching repercussions, and his story arc was ultimately the most twisted and unexpected, pushing him into some very exposed, dangerous places. And once again, his presence allowed for some cool urban guerrilla scenes and revolutionary fights in all their bloody infamy, so hats off to Michel and his Landfall crowd! 😉

landfall_city_map

Ben Styke remained very much himself, and while he was also shown as reluctantly maturing and accepting some of his responsibilities, his development arc was more of a sketch: all bold lines, monochrome, and not much shading. While his story had a lot of potential, playing out in a completely new environment, I didn’t feel it managed to reach it. Dynize is shown in patches, the slavery-based society not much different from the democratic Fatrastan one, and in some aspects – at least from Styke’s point of view – actually better, as slaves are seemingly quite happy with their fate. I feel there was a promise of an interesting historical/political discussion there, alas – not realized. We’re left only with a very superficial image of “not all Dynize are bad.” Bad apples are everywhere, granted, but not everywhere they get to organize a major invasion and thousands of blood sacrifices with the blessing and support of the majority of the population.

Styke had a lot on his plate in this installment, and while I’ll always enjoy reading about Ben’s antics, and his peculiar worldview, his role as an accessory for Pole unfortunately diminished his appeal a bit. I don’t think that by now it comes as a surprise to anyone – but I’ll say it again: in my opinion, the biggest weakness of the Fatrastan trilogy is the presence of the characters from Tamas’s trilogy. As a result of previous events, they’ve already started as overpowered. As such, in Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy Taniel and Ka-poel are not changed at all, doggedly continuing in their dreadfully boring, groan-inducing roles of saintly liberators with god-like powers. I’d even go as far as to complain that they regressed (Taniel with a sword? Seriously?). Yes, the Chosen One trope was indeed heavy-handed here and, frankly, took away a lot of my enjoyment.

And here we come to my main critique: the Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy seems to at least partially contradict The Powder Mage trilogy; suddenly, attaining godhood is not so bad, provided the right guys do it. Benevolent autocracy of a superpowered figure becomes an outcome we should all cheer and feel happy about, and Tamas’s revolution gets dialed down to a revenge quest of a wronged man. Well, I’m for one quite irritated by this turn of events (and that’s an understatement!). An enlightened despot is still a despot, and while democracy is not without its faults, trading it for autocracy can hardly be presented as a better choice. But the political repercussions of this outcome are obviously and conveniently missing from Blood of Empire, as they would have to come after the “happily ever after.” Which, all things considered, is rather surprising – after all, McClellan had spent a huge amount of this trilogy on political matters, so it would be fitting to devote a bit more thought to that particular choice of resolution. Adom’s wink is neither a very convincing, nor ultimately satisfying endorsement.

That said, Blood of Empire, after a relatively slow beginning, gripped my attention and kept me deeply engaged, proving a very satisfying, enjoyable read – at least till the disappointing ending. And yet, if that’s the intended conclusion to the stories set in the Powder Mage universe, it’s not a bad one. I’d still say that Tamas’s trilogy ended in a much better style, less Cinderella and more Cook, but that’s a personal preference 😉.

Score: 7,5/10

70 thoughts on “Brian McClellan, Blood of Empire (2019)

  1. Everything you write here, even your “this was bad”, makes me want to read this even more 😀 It’s on my tbr, so it WILL happen.

    Makes me wonder what McClellan will do next. He seems to have a promising future (isn’t it sad when we consider an established author with 6+ books under their belt still a “newbie”?) and I hope he doesn’t fade away like Jay Posey seems to have.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think you’ll enjoy this quite a lot, if Taniel’s whiny ways from the first trilogy don’t put you off too much! 😉 But it’s a great fun, and I hope McClellan will become one of your favorite authors!
      He definitely has one advantage – the series is finished! And the two trilogies can be read separately! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    2. piotrek

      He did a bit of really mediocre urban fantasy… but hopefully he’ll realise his duty to his reader is in writing more Powder Mage stuff 😉

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh, that is right, wasn’t it a short story or novella or something?
        Probably depends on what kind of person he is. Will he be satisfied writing in one universe and does he have the imagination for it, or will he turn all “artsy” and want to spread his artistic wings? These are the hard hitting questions that must be answered! 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I won’t read too deeply into your review as I haven’t read the second instalment yet – especially after starting the first part way through the Powder Mage Trilogy – but I am so in love with McClellan’s writing and universe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally! 😀

      And yes, though I try to avoid spoilers at all costs, some are simply too ingrained in the plot not to mention them (like whether certain characters still live!) 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I am of the conviction that power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

      While democracy has its faults and is far from an ideal political system, the Platonic praise of benevolent autocracy does not convince me in the slightest.
      Should we have a weighted system, based partly on eg. education, or basic knowledge of how state works (taxation, public service, etc.), like with acquiring citizenship? I really don’t know, it does sound reasonable enough, but on the other hand the current Chinese efforts at quantification of human usefulness are pretty frightening.

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      1. When I wrote of true benevolence, I meant a benevolence that would not be corrupted. I do think that would be possible, power doesn’t necessarily corrupt always – but I agree, it does in most cases – lets say 99%, so I guess we agree.

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        1. I think true benevolence is what people expect from gods. There are no perfect humans, only those who try to be perfect, and those usually steer clear from ruling as it always entails compromise and contradiction, and acting upon fragmentary knowledge. And there is always temptation, and in case of autocracy a confusion of what constitutes public good and one’s own. I was trying to think of an example of benevolent autocracy as you define it but nothing comes to mind – do you have something?

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          1. No I don’t. part of all this pessimism about technocratic-autocratic state interventions, I think, is the fact that social sciences are only now are discovering how inequality works, the biology of perpetuating generational poverty, the impact of such stress on the entire society, etc. I think today it would be much more feasible to build a green, benevolent, liberal, more of less happy society without poverty, than it was 20 years ago.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. You’re probably right; but we are unable to build from scratch a new society, and any existing one has already long-lasting structures, ideas, modes of action that are not necessarily beneficial but hard to change nonetheless.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Don’t get me wrong: I’m very pessimistic too. I think we won’t be able to make the changes needed in time to survive climate change and mass extinction as a the society we are today, let alone a better one.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Ah, see, but I consider myself a careful optimist 😉 I think that paradoxically Covid-19 and the economic crisis might give us a chance to change certain things that otherwise would have been safely entrenched in routine and political custom. Also, have you read the new Lancet publication on human global population predictions? A silent revolution might have already come, one associated with women’s education and decision-making and changing reproduction patterns…

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                    1. Ah, I still think we can manage; but the window of opportunity closes quickly, and if we don’t make some harsh decisions soon, it will be much more difficult later – and most of the cost will be borne by the poorest.

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                    2. I still have hope 😉 I think you do too, otherwise why have family at all? We always want a better future for our kids, not something made even worse by us – or, at least, that’s my idealistic belief 🙂

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                    3. Having children was not really a rational decision. My only hope for them is that the next 20 years there won’t be too much calamities. But that hope isn’t big. Of course I want a better future for them, but hope alone won’t manage that.

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                    4. I’m a bit more optimistic about the future. Do you remember that guy who predicted that by 20th century London would be covered in horse manure from the transportation? There are technological and scientific advancements all the time, and our understanding of the world around us changes accordingly. The hope is still there, and all of us can add their little bit to make it better.

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                    5. I’ve heard that argument many times, mostly from conservative politicians holding back change. Variations include acid rain and the hole in the ozon layer. Technology & science will save us!The difference with the manure is that this time the entire scientific community is ringing the bell, and the difference with acid rain/ozon is that it’s about the entire ecology of the biosphere this time. I don’t believe geoengeneering of Carbon Scrubbing is possible. People underestimate the scale of our planet.

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                    6. As you probably know I’m far from that highly irresponsible point of view of many conservatives. But I also remember that the majority of scientists still believes that Earth can be saved; changed, no doubt, and with staggering loss of diversity, but surviving. And I wouldn’t totally discount geo-engineering, or atmosphere-engineering. My argument is that there might be more efficient solutions in the future; and with the whole scientific community ringing the bell, as you say, the diversity of approach might bring unexpected discoveries. It happened before – solar energy, geothermal energy, etc. I think we mostly differ in amount of hope we possess, Bart 😊

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                    7. Sure! There’s hope indeed. But what worries me most is that scientist continually worsen their projections. Earth & life will survive, that’s not up for debate – I’m only worried for human civilization.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    8. I am there with you. But I think we’re finally realizing how bad it really is; many people started caring more about things like waste, recycling, pollution, global warming etc. Will this belated and fragmentary reaction be enough? Probably not; but every little bit can help, and with time we may still be able to salvage most of it or adapt to new conditions. That’s our only chance; I’m much more pessimistic about our chances beyond Earth.

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                    9. I’m always very happy when our discussions evolve and stray into non-fiction territories, so don’t stop, even if you intend to talk about doom all the way! 😄

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    2. Plus, the problem with the countries you mentioned is exactly that their current leaders are trying to dismantle democracy and democratic institutions. Trump and Orban and Kaczyński are itching to be given autocratic powers and no longer be forced to care what the ruled think about them.

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    3. piotrek

      We probably need to wait for benevolent, omnipotent AIs… Banks’ Culture is my Utopia 😉

      As Ola says, in our country the only likely autocrats are far from benevolent, so it’s strictly hypothetical. But I remember Orhan Pamuk writing in one of his novels that his middle class family found regular coup d’etats by Turkish army reassuring. Each time, religious masses were silenced for a few years. He’s not proud of that attitude any more, and he does not think they were right – but that was their sentiment at the time. Of course, now the military is on the side of the religious in Turkey.

      Personally, I believe that liberalism is more important than democracy, but there’s no way of enforcing just the first one without creating more problems than we would solve.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Non-democratic liberalism? Not sure if you can have one without the other… Maybe some kind of “democratic citizenship” – you’d have to pass an exam to get the right to vote – would solve some of the current problems, but then we would certainly have other issues with it – like who’d choose the questions, for example 😉

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        1. Less lobbying, more control on politicians, stronger institutions, less frequent elections, more international cooperation on things like taxes & climate. You could have liberalism without the constant tribalism of today’s elections.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I don’t think limiting who votes is a good option, but it would be good to limit what/who everybody votes on, on the one hand, and more direct democracy on the other hand: like in the us, where, if you ask the question correctly, most people have been wanting european healthcare for decades – and yet it doesn’t happen. That’s not democracy either.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. That’s for sure! But I’m still concerned with the election process itself, in time of widespread information manipulation. But I totally agree, we really need to steer the political system toward a longer timeframe than what we have now.

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  3. This was, as always, an amazing review!! I am sorry that the ending was quite disappointing, and that direction is quite unexpected too! I cannot really say much, because I have read just the first book of the first Trilogy, but it is enough to be surprised by this ending!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Susy! 😊

      Yeah, the first trilogy is very anti-deity, the second one – surprisingly not so much 😉 Bit it’s still very good, so read on safely!! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve really enjoyed the Powder Mage books and the first two in this trilogy so I’m looking forward to finding out how it all ends. Am slightly worried by your mention of a disappointing ending, but also intrigued as to what happens.
    Definitely agree about Tamas being charismatic and intriguing too, he was such a great character 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, we’ll all mourn Tamas forever, he was such a compelling character! But I think that a part of his lasting allure stems from the fact that he sacrificed himself and died in the process of achieving his goals.

      I’m very picky in my reads, and here I was surprised by what I saw as discontinuity or even contradiction to the message from The Powder Mage trilogy. The ending is not bad, but… I guess I just expected more 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. While I enjoyed this final book in the trilogy – and gave it a 5 star rating – I understand your misgivings about the ending and the appearance of a “all shall love me and despair” figure: the stories in this world are at their best when they deal with *people* and their struggles. And I had to laugh – loudly – at your not-so-benevolent comment about Taniel: he always proved quite irritating to me and the less of him I see, the better 😀
    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading, Maddalena! 😊

      Frankly, I was rather surprised and dismayed by that final reversal of what I perceived as author’s views on godhood and free will from The Powder Mage trilogy; up to the grand finale Blood of Empire was really shaping up to be a 9/10 read, immensely enjoyable, immersive and fast-paced, especially that McClellan seemed to have learned from his previous books a lot.

      And yes, despite the fact that we borrowed Taniel’s famous and well-deserved moniker for our collaborative reviews, Taniel himself is somewhat of a… dud, to remain firmly within the area of explosive vocabulary 😉 but then, there are so many other, much cooler characters in the series! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review Ola! I have seen this guys books being flaunted around the NEt Galley sites a few times. But I can not request more books, I am a bit swamped at the moment. Powder Mage does sound interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Dave! 😊

      When you have a bit more time on your hands, The Powder Mage trilogy is a really cool, short series you might enjoy in between your Warhammer reads 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Really glad to see such positive thoughts on this finale, Ola! 😀 I can definitely see why the ending bothered you and it would have indeed needed another volume to explore the very issues you speak of but who knows what McClellan has in store for us next. Whatever it is, I’m all in, that’s for sure hahaha I, myself, have not yet read the Powder Mage trilogy as I embarked on this adventure but I know I’ll have plenty of fun going into it now with all the praise every one of you guys have been giving it for the past years! 😀 Again, fantastic review as always, Ola!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! 😊

      I’ve read his urban fantasy and unfortunately it’s rather mediocre… So while I’d love to read more novels or short stories set in the Powder Mage universe, I’m no longer so optimistic about McClellan’s other literary endeavors 😂 I do envy you the opportunity to read the Powder Mage trilogy for the first time, though! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sigh, I STILL need to read this. Loved the review though!

    Taniel did like, kill hundreds of soldiers with that sword in the last book. But I know what you mean. I actually liked him in the first trilogy, but I think a POV chapter at this point would be painful. He’s just so brooding and aloof and stoic all the time—it’s annoying. And as for style-wise, Tamas DIED at the end of his trilogy, Ola. How’s anything going to compete with that? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Will! 😊

      Yeah, exactly! But then, I always thought Tamas did sacrifice himself for a reason – and here, not to spoil anything, this very reason seems somewhat subverted by his own son 😜 As for the Taniel-Vlora fight at the end of the second book, man – that power creep was infuriating! And while Vlora pays for it in this book, and it makes her more human, Taniel seems no worse for wear 😂 a bit too much of Mary Sue in him, for my liking. That said, I think that McClellan’s Powder Mage series is currently one of the best out there 😄

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Cath! 😊 It’s a sixth book in the series, the grand finale, so I was indeed invested 😄 And while there were some disappointments, particularly regarding the overall direction of the second trilogy and the conclusion to the series, I was quite happy to let the author take me for this wild ride and say goodbye to a slew of memorable characters 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I really loved the first trilogy, despite the few flaws it had; and the conclusion to the Powder Mage was courageous and ambitious. The second trilogy has a wider array of interesting characters (though none as good as Tamas 😉) and even more political intrigue and battles. But all in all, I prefer the first one to this, despite the fact that McClellan’s writing noticeably improved 🤣 The first one had more heart. Still, I think you’d enjoy it, though probably not in the middle of your current fantasy slump 😉

      Have you read The Rook?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. You might enjoy it, it’s a standalone mix of a spy thriller and X-Men and while it’s too not without flaws, it’s short and fast and might be just the thing for your slump 😄
          I read it a few years back but never got around to write a review.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. buriedinprint

    This isn’t a series that I’m likely to lunge for, but I like how carefully you’ve considered the balance between characters from the other series and this series, and how hard it would be, for an author, to successfully maintain that balance and still keep the series’ ending satisfying. (Also, I sympathize with what you’ve said in a comment above — one wants to discuss developments in general terms, but what does one do when simply referring to a character, or not referring to them, is a spoiler, along the live/or/die question!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand 🙂 I love how you phrased it, exceedingly polite!
      It would be a huge investment indeed, six books of above-average length and a dizzying assortment of characters, and most crucially, a concept that would not be necessarily the most interesting for you 😉 Still, if you find yourself in an inexplicable fit of craving for flintlock fantasy, this may be the right series for you! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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