Publisher: Tor Books
Page Count: 560
Release Date: December 1st, 2020
Series: POISON WARS, Book 2
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars – Loved it!
Note: I was given an ARC by the publisher in exchange for my fair and honest review.
Warning: Light spoilers potentially ahead for book one. Haven’t read it? You can find the review here: CITY OF LIES
It’s been two years since Jovan and Kalina uncovered and defeated a conspiracy that threatened to overthrow the government of the city of Silasta. Since then, they’ve used their respective secret positions as poison-proofer and spy to hunt any surviving conspirators who might threaten their friend and protectee, Chancellor Tain. As the festival of karodee draws closer, Jovan becomes increasingly convinced that a larger threat to the city still remains, a worry made all the more complicated by the influx of foreign dignitaries arriving as part of the celebration. But as karodee begins, it soon becomes clear Jovan’s worries are not imaginary. The coup attempt a few years prior may have simply been the opening salvo in a much larger plot to bring down not just the city, but the entire country.
HOLLOW EMPIRE is a twisty espionage thriller set in a fantasy world. Assassinations, deadly explosions, and dark magics await you as Jovan and Kalina race to uncover the culprits and the motivations behind the attacks. It’s the kind of mystery where personal connections, international relations, and historical events each have a part to play in untangling the knot of murder and mayhem that threatens Silasta, with red herrings and dead-ends aplenty.
Jovan and Kalina are once again the POV characters, with chapters alternating between their first person perspectives. Jovan is struggles not just with his mental tics (the character being slightly on the spectrum) but with a full-on “Cassandra problem.” Even though he was instrumental in saving the city earlier, much of the leadership is ready to pretend the worst is behind them, and believe Jovan is overly paranoid, leaving him desperate to find evidence to prove his gut feelings have a basis in fact. He is also responsible for training Dija, his thirteen-year-old niece, to be his replacement poison-proofer should anything befall him and a new family member is required to step into the role. Dija is bright and a welcome new character, but Jovan isn’t quite sure what to do with her, as he’s always focused on his mission of protecting Tain above all else.
Kalina also has grown since CITY OF LIES. Where before she had to lean into her meek, unassuming role of the family invalid so that she would go overlooked, she’s now a well-known hero and allowed to operate more publicly. Although her health issues are very real, she now is on track to be a diplomat with an important ally nation, and spends much of her time mingling with political envoys from other countries, trying to assess if any of them have cause to see Silasta fall.
I enjoy a good fantasy series that does a time jump between books. While reading a trilogy that takes place in a short window of time is satisfying, it’s much more rare for an author to take a step back and let the events of one book have time to breathe and have consequence in the world at large. In CITY OF LIES, Kalina, Jovan and the rest of the city leadership were forced to confront the fact that their nation had been built on some pretty terrible treatment of the Darfri people, including stifling their culture and refusing them education. Two years isn’t enough time to fix the problems, but that small jump allowed for some steps to be made and to see how Silasta is trying to reconcile with the Darfri, to mend the rifts between the peoples. Those tensions continue to play an important part in city politics, and was a welcome layer to the overall story.
I did have one small issue with the book. By all research I can find, HOLLOW EMPIRE is book two in a duology, meaning (in my opinion) it should be putting to rest much of the questions I have about the plot and the world at large. While HOLLOW EMPIRE does resolve its plot and vanquish the immediate threat, it leaves a much bigger question about the world at large unanswered. Now, I would be THRILLED to read more books in this series, but none currently have been announced (something which is likely entirely out of the author’s hands). I understand problems are almost never neatly wrapped with a bow, but it left the overall plot feeling a bit unfinished, like there’s a book three I’ll never get to see. Again, I struggle a bit to fault the author for something they may not have control over, but it just felt a bit structurally weird to have this big unresolved issue at the end of a duology. Hopefully time will bring us more books set in this world, and this hanging thread will no longer be hanging!
That being said, I can whole-heartedly recommend this series to anyone who likes their fantasy to come with politics and espionage. The POISON WAR duology is all about mystery, intrigue, and a nation struggling to reconcile itself with a less than perfect past. Add in a splash of magic and some harrowing sequences, and HOLLOW EMPIRE makes a near-perfect cap to this fantasy series.