Fantasy Book Review: The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne)

Empire's Ruin Brian Stavely book reviewA classic case of a brilliant writer whose talent is subverted and suppressed by his religious views/worldview. The first half of this is a gripping, fast-paced tale that superbly melds a character study of a lifelong warrior forced to finally grapple with her failures and inner demons, with a high-fantasy, multi-character epic of a world falling apart. This SHOULD have been a fantastic book.

Instead, the extreme nihilism and obsession with that had seeped into Stavey’s other books ends up absolutely taking over the second half.

The doctrine of emptiness is called shunyata in Buddhism and has a multitude of other names in other Eastern religions and philosophies, but the basic idea is that the deepest reality and the truest state of being is one of total emptiness in which you lose the self. This, paired with extreme nihilism, becomes a huge theme of the second half of the book, but one of the series’ weaknesses is that Stavely is never able to clearly articulate what it looks like to achieve emptiness and whether there is any moral good to achieving it.

The book is *obsessed* with death, and there’s so much death and violence that it becomes mind numbing after a while. Bad things happen, over and over and over and over, relentlessly, to everyone in the story, but especially our heroine. It’s hard to read this and not get depressed as the characters encounter mindless evil at every turn and get ground into the dust, and as the heroine goes on endless psychological spirals of self-hatred with no defined worldview to help her fight these feelings.

Late in the novel, one of the main characters decides that death doesn’t matter and is morally neutral once you achieve the state of nothingness, because actually, nothing matters at all. This seems like it will be a main theme for the rest of the series, which is odd because meanwhile, our main heroine has been looking for meaning and purpose the entire novel, and finds some measure of it not through attaining emptiness, but through connecting to another human.

The relentless nihilism, obsession with death, and muddled philosophical messages largely ruin an otherwise brilliantly written fantasy novel.

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