ENGINES OF EMPIRE (THE AGE OF UPRISING BOOK 1) by R. S. Ford
Orbit p/b £11.33, Kindle £2.99
Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith
‘Engines of Empire’ is a long but energetically-told story set in a world where the old-time religion (worship of the dragon-like ‘Wyrms’) is fading, especially when compared to the increasing commercial and industrial power of the Guilds. There is also an ‘Emperor’ linked to the Guilds. One of the chief Guilds is run by the Hawkspurs, and their matriarch is Lady Rosomon, the Emperor’s sister.
The three Hawkspur children are Conall, Tyreta, and Fulren. They are well-drawn characters, young people moving on from being bratty teenagers (especially the girl, Tyreta) to serious adult players. They earn their place in three entirely separate (and, to be honest, rather long) episodes. Conall becomes a soldier on the dangerous frontier. Tyreta, who has power over the magical ‘pyrestones’ that powers industry, is sent off to visit the Sundered Isles to ‘build character’. Fulren stays at home. He is given the task of escorting a very exotic visitor, Assenah Neskhon, an emissary from a neighbouring rival state. At this point, Fulren’s story is probably the most interesting. Assenah is in most ways a genuinely original character, so is the society she comes from, and she arrives in a half-magical airship. She has ‘flame-red hair’, ‘long legs and confident stride (like) some exotic feline’ – a very effective picture, though this aspect of her is not so original. Just by being here in Wyke, the capital city of Torwyn, this sexpot reveals some of the political tensions – especially between the Wyrm-worshipping clerics and the guilds.
Then it all begins to go wrong, everywhere.
Tyreta (for no particular reason) goes into the harsh bandit country outside the city she is visiting. Bad things happen. Conall encounters some very tough and dangerous characters indeed – including his notional commander, Frontier Marshal Beringer. Bad things happen. Fulren becomes dangerously attracted to the magical Assenah. A very, very bad thing happens, and Fulren gets the blame.
There’s a whole lot of impressive invention here, like the powered-armour stormhulks and the pyrestones themselves. There are surprises when main characters are killed off much in the manner of George R R Martin. (The author has clearly read Martin and Abercrombie.) Much of the book has effective kill-or-be-killed excitement. Eventually, the main characters get back to the city, just after the ‘uprising’ has happened, and for me, this is when the book truly catches fire: suddenly, the stakes are huge, and you really want to know what will happen next.
Overall? I was expecting a little bit more smoky industry – forges and things, a rarely-used fantasy background I like. I would also have preferred something with more of the atmosphere of unique fantasy rather than the familiar, but perhaps that’s just me being picky. The characters here are each of them thoroughly realized and entirely convincing. But they all seem, well, very white, and their characters and thought processes are perhaps a bit unchallenging and too easy to grasp. There’s excellent plotting but not much sense of wonder. This novel is all effective, though. Several scenes are very reminiscent of Abercrombie, though it’s a compliment to the author to say he can stand the comparison. It does take the characters a while to get back to the city, where the real action is, and you realize the three siblings have learned from their experiences. There will certainly be more challenges for them in this exciting series, and it is to the author’s credit that you care and want the story to continue through more books.