The Empire’s Ghost (2017) is the first novel in Isabelle Steiger’s PATHS OF LANTISTYNE series. I was sent book two to review and while I don’t often review books whose predecessors I haven’t read, The Rightful Queen looked intriguing enough that I went back and read The Empire’s Ghost.
Long ago, the empire of Elesthene encompassed the entire continent. But the Empire, as empires are wont to do, eventually faded, along with magic, into mere legend, and the continent is fractured into several kingdoms. But now, Elgar, the Imperator of one such kingdom (Hallarnon), home to the Empire’s old capital of Valyanrend, seeks to bind the continent under one-person rule again, waging war via armies and other means against the other kingdoms.
Arrayed against him (bear with me here) are: Arianrod Margraine, Marquis of Esthrades; Adora Avestri, Princess Regent of Issamira; Kelken Rayl, eleven-year-old king of Reglay; and Laen Markham, heir to the throne of Lanvaldis (recently conquered by Elgar). That covers (mostly) the aristocrats. Also opposed to Elgar, though some more intentionally and actively than others, and some not for a while, are a number of non-royals. The Valyanrend group, who mostly get mixed up in things accidentally, is made up of Braddock, a former mercenary; Deinol, a bandit; Lucius; Deinol’s partner; a Shinrian swordsperson from Aurnis (conquered by Elgar); Marceline, a young orphan thief; Roger, a swindler/thief; Seth, a young kitchen boy; and Morgan, owner of the Dragon’s Head tavern in Valyanrend, where he and the others have long gathered together. Others, either directly opposed to Elgar or entwined somehow in the machinations, include Cadfael, a once-soldier nearly destroyed by grief; Rhia, Cadfael’s sister and captain of Adora’s guard in Issamira; and Seren, Arianrod’s bodyguard. There are also a trio of “wardenfells” who are able to use magic and a handful of mysterious and powerful figures who pop in and out to give cryptic messages to move things along. And there are those who work for Elgar, the most important being Varaeln Oswhent his chief advisor; and Ritsu Hanae, his most icily effective killer.
Whew. As you can tell from the above list, which is only a partial list of characters, the series involves a cast of thousands (only a slight exaggeration). It’s also pretty sweeping in geographical scope, as over the course of the two books we shift not only points-of-view but also move around amongst Valyanred, Esthrades, Issamira, Reglay, and Lanvaldis. This is “epic” fantasy in all its usual modes: multiple POVs, multiple settings, good and evil and in-between/unsure, enchanted swords, mages and wild magic, a continent at stake, etc. Really, all we’re missing (so far, at least) are non-human characters.
Introducing all these characters and their accordant plot threads, then growing those threads, takes a lot of time. And honestly, The Empire’s Ghost is a bit slow-going, feeling almost like a novel-length set-up for The Rightful Queen. Part of that is having so many characters means they’re spread a bit thin in terms of characterization and depth, leaving the author to rely on standard tropes (young innocent kitchen boy, jaded former soldier) or on tics (I lost track of how many times Arianrod either “smirked” or mentioned being “bored”). I didn’t mind the pace of the first book, but it was difficult for me to feel fully engaged by many of the characters.
It was this, more than anything else, that left me feeling at the end that the best word for The Empire’s Ghost was “solid.” It was smoothly written, had, if not “deep” characters, many likable ones you didn’t mind spending time with, and set in motion enough intriguing plotlines (even if some relied a bit too much on convenience) that I never felt like quitting nor ever considered not moving on to the sequel. But it also didn’t exactly compel me forward (it wasn’t a book I read in one or two sittings) and left me interested to pick up The Rightful Queen but not hungry to.