Today I am excited to be joining the Black Coffee Books tour for Marian L. Thorpe’s latest novel, Empire’s Heir. Thank you for inviting me along on the tour. This is the sixth book in the series, but works equally well as a standalone novel. It has recently been selected as a finalist in the Eric Hoffer Award for Small, Academic and Independent Presses. Congratulations, Marion!
Some games are played for mortal stakes.
Gwenna, heir to Ésparias, is summoned by the Empress of Casil to compete for the hand of her son. Offered power and influence far beyond what her own small land can give her, Gwenna’s strategy seems clear – except she loves someone else.
Nineteen years earlier, the Empress outplayed Cillian in diplomacy and intrigue. Alone, his only living daughter has little chance to counter the Empress’s experience and skill. Aging and torn by grief and worry, Cillian insists on accompanying Gwenna to Casil.
Risking a charge of treason, faced with a choice he does not want to make, Cillian must convince Gwenna her future is more important than his – while Gwenna plans her moves to keep her father safe. Both are playing a dangerous game. Which one will concede – or sacrifice?
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
I had been considering reading this series for a while, so when I was offered the chance to review Empire’s Heir as a standalone for Black Coffee Book Tours, I leapt at the chance – thank you to the author and to Black Coffee Book Tours for having me along!
Owing to the fact that this is the sixth book in a series there are many well-established characters who are already mired in the history of the Empire, but who I had to play catch up to figure out all of the ins and outs of their relationships – and believe me there are a lot of ins and outs and complicated relationships! Polyamorous relationships are the norm in this story which feels like it is set in Ancient Rome, but isn’t. It is set in a fantasy world ruled by an Empress. Political machinations are key to the story. And baths. As in Ancient Rome, a lot of baths are taken.
Luckily the author provides a “Story So Far” catch-up guide on her website which I found very useful. There is also a glossary of foreign terms included, which are often used as terms of endearment throughout the story.
There are two main ‘point of view‘ characters telling the story from first person perspective, Princess Gwenna, and her father, Prince Cillian, who take it in turns, chapter by chapter to take the reins. They are both well-educated, complex characters and I enjoyed the loving relationship between father and daughter. She was always looking to ensure he was comfortable and had everything he needed. He was protective of her and the potential match between her and Alekos, the son of the Empress, who we do not meet until halfway into the story. Cillian wanted Gwenna to be happy above all else. The secondary characters are equally complex, in terms of their relationships, familial roles and positions within the hierarchy and politics of the empire. They all (except one) have in common their love for Cillian, who seems to provoke strong emotions in all who meet him.
We join this powerful family soon after the unthinkable has happened – the youngest child died recently and everyone is in mourning.
Eighteen year old Gwenna is the heir to the leader, or Princip, of Ésparias, and is set to travel with her parents to Casil, the seat of the Empress, to be presented among a number of other young women of note as a possible bride for Alekos and to be present for his investiture. This involves an arduous sea voyage during which she explores her relationship with soldier, Lynthe, and thinks she has fallen in love with her. Gwenna is a wonderfully layered character, very intelligent and well trained in diplomacy by her father, yet still able to defend herself with a throwing knife when the need arises and full of love for her family and partner Lynthe.
Her parents have informed her that the marriage must be her choice and that she should not undertake it lightly through a sense of duty to her country. Years before the Empress Eudekia was thwarted in her desire to marry Cillian due to his love for Lena – so now she is determined to obtain his daughter as her son’s wife. She also suspects treachery on his part. Cillian is half-expecting to be arrested for treason on arrival, despite his continuing friendly correspondence for many years with the Empress, so the stakes are particularly high. Cillian is also a great character, aging and in need of massage and drugs to keep his courtly façade in place, in private and in his point of view chapters we learn exactly how he feels towards the other characters and the situation in which they have found themselves. An extremely skilled diplomat he has to come up with a solution that will stop the war that is brewing in the East from happening while also juggling the likelihood of his own arrest for treason and trying to keep his daughter’s wishes with regards marriage to the fore. Every word spoken within this book is very carefully chosen – there is no room for idle chit-chat.
Love and loyalty, conflicting…
How did you decide which one to choose? How did you sort them out, separate them?
There is not a lot of action in this novel, barely any fights or deaths, but whenever there is an action scene it is both well-paced and well-choreographed. Don’t get me wrong, however – there may not be action in every chapter, but there is an awful lot going on. The many layers of intrigue, relationships and politics are meticulously hinted at with more than a few surprises and twists along the way. The game of “xache” is often referred to throughout the book – a game of strategy – and it is clearly a metaphor for the strategic game-playing that is happening between the different factions on the political level:
Some games are played for mortal stakes.
The world in which this book takes place is artfully described and due to the author’s descriptive skills it is very easy to visualise the many different locations of the story, the grand city of Casil, home to Empress Eudekia and her son Alekos taking the centre stage for the second half of the book:
“Buildings—mostly warehouses, Sorley told me—gleamed in the sunshine, and gulls wheeled and cried above the dozens of ships moored along the docks. The water, within the long arms of the sea walls, was still, but the docks were not. Men loaded and unloaded ships, transferring amphorae and barrels to carts and smaller vessels. Shouts blended with the lowing of oxen and the jangle of rigging in the breeze.”
This story deserves your concentration when you read it – many things are touched on rather than fully explained and you will enjoy it all the better for giving it your full attention! It was a highly enjoyable read and I aim to go back and start the series from Book 1 at some point.
About the Author
“My books are historical fiction of an imagined world, one that is close to Britain, Northern Europe, and Rome, but isn’t any of them. A world where a society evolved differently after the Eastern Empire left, where one young fisherwoman answers her leader’s call to defend her country, beginning a journey into uncharted territory, in an Empire on the edge of history.
After two careers as a research scientist and an educator, I decided it was time to do what I’d always really wanted, and be a writer. As well as my novels, I’ve published short stories and poetry. My life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history provided the inspiration for my books, while my other interests in landscape archaeology and birding provide background. Right now, I’m writing the next book in the series.”
Praise for Empire’s Heir
This is such a great book…. What can I say? I loved the book, love the people, and will read and re-read multiple times. Many thanks to the author for bringing them to life. Amazon Review
Themes of trust, familial love, and sacrifice abound. Witnessing the passing of the torch from father to daughter brings the reader an almost physical pain…. As always, Thorpe’s writing is beautiful – strong in the details of landscape both physical and political, delicate in the handling of strong emotion, and cunning in how stealthily details of the plot are seeded throughout. This is a long book, but it reads like a much shorter one. There is a constant thread of tension running through the book, and a twist at the end that only the most clairvoyant reader will see coming. Amazon Review
This is a vivid story of family, friends, and others whose lives are being decided by a complex set of circumstances frequently beyond their control. Though in a unique setting, their actions, reactions and emotions are common to people throughout history and everywhere. I recommend this novel as an engaging continuation of a well established story, but also a tension filled narrative of a group of people negotiating a complex situation in its own right. Amazon Review.