Empire of Exiles Review – Pay No Mind to the Bygones

By JoshuaMacDougall on

About JoshuaMacDougall

Joshua (He/Him) is a contributor and writer for the Reading section of Geekly.
He is an enthusiast for fantasy novels, tabletop games, and wrestling.
Follow him @FourofFiveWits on Twitter.


The unlimited possibilities of the genre make fantasy so enticing to me, and Empire of Exiles by Erin M. Evans, one of the best books of 2022, takes full advantage of that. Its setting is one of the most unique I’ve read in years. The character’s motivations, voices, flaws, and quirks are so well-defined that it is difficult to pick a favorite. The plot is a murder mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy all at once. It contains many secrets, twists, and turns that make the pages fly by. That includes flashbacks of an infamous usurper in his final days that serve as a framework device for the present-day mystery. Suffice it to say, I ate this delicious meal of a book up in quick succession. It’s the kind of book I’ll recommend to everyone to read simply so there are more people to talk to about it.

Everything starts with a murder-suicide. Quill’s best friend and fellow scrivener, Karimo, murders some important figures at a party and then kills himself at a party just as Quill arrives to hear his last words. What starts as a simple scrivener through grief is trying to make sense of how the Karimo he’s always known to take pride in the law could be the same one who commits this heinous crime. This begins a snowball effect leading to a grander conspiracy involving the royal family, a former childhood romance, a poison not seen in years, and an assassin gone missing after a failed coup. In a way, everything starts with that coup when Duke Redolfo Kirazzi’s conspiracy to usurp the crown and put his pawn on the throne. He failed, and we see his final days before his execution when his brother comes to visit. This frames the modern-day mystery to a surprising climax, with me biting my nails and foregoing sleep to finish the book. Who needs sleep anyway?

Actually, all of this starts with changelings, whether they be monsters or a race of people themselves, that can take the form of your loved ones, your neighbors, and your leaders looming over the entire story. The threat of changelings is a constant that underlines a lot of conflict in the story, especially the political ones, with their only protection a large salt wall that keeps the changelings out but also keeps them all trapped in. People of multiple nations forced to flee their homelands, histories, and cultures to all squeeze into this one nation at the continent’s edge is an idea for a world rich with possibilities. The world-building is weaved so well into the intrigue, the mystery, the conspiracy, and the overall plot that you’ll not realize you’re being taught about the Imperial Federation of Semillan Protectorates, or Semilla for short, as it goes along. Politics are front and center in this fantasy mystery thriller of a book as it takes place in Arlabecca, the capital of Semilla, the same city that contains the Imperial Archives, holding what could be saved from the old world.

However, the Imperial Archives is the backbone of this book. A request for artifacts within is the catalyst of the inciting incident; it is an integral point of interactions for the POV characters; it is where the book’s best secrets are kept and then revealed, and what may be most important of all is where we learn about the world’s magic system. People with affinity magic can speak to and manipulate particular objects like bronze, ink, and bones, but some have too much of it. The Archive’s specialists often have affinities so strong that the material they connect with can overtake them physically and mentally to the point of hurting themselves and others. This level of affinity magic reads like anxiety and panic disorders, but Evans never writes them like they are a weakness, which is both commendable and remarkable. Even when the characters think of it as a weakness themselves, they have a support system to talk them down and hype them up. Like all great fantasies, secrets about the magic of this world are hinted at throughout Empire of Exiles. Still, no matter what is revealed, I hope the excellent depiction of its similarities to anxiety disorders continues.

Not counting the flashback sections of the book, there are four point-of-view characters, each brought into the murder mystery for different reasons, with different goals and stakes to resolve what happened. Brother Sesquillo, or Quill to most, is a member of the Order of Scriveners of Parem who is better with people than the more detail-oriented part of being a scribe as opposed to his closest friend Kirimo until he witnessed the traumatic incident of his friend murdering a political figure and then killing himself. It’s heartbreaking to watch Quill become obsessed with proving his friend’s innocence as he becomes increasingly hyperfixated with grief to the point that he puts himself in the crosshairs of a greater conspiracy at work. Quill’s loyalty to his friend, his charm without being smarmy, and his cunning without being overly clever are the qualities that make him so enjoyable to read and root for. You could see Quill’s faults in anyone who had gone through a traumatic experience like him: jumping to conclusions, becoming obsessed with the murders, and acting before thinking. Amadea Gintanas, archivist superior of the Imperial Archive, balances Quill’s more erratic grief-ridden behavior by being the voice of reason for Quill and all the specialists. Due to her past trauma, she is very protective of her charges, even Quill, whom she has just met. What I love about Amadea’s depiction is so often, mental disorders are treated as a hindrance to protagonists in stories, but in what resembles PTSD, Amadea manages her trauma and uses her experience to help others. She is strong with the disorder, not because she has magically overcome it. Her past is integral to the plot, and Evans does not leave the reader hanging along trying to figure it out before laying her cards on the table.

One of those specialists under Amadea’s care is Ynni, quite the opposite of Quill in terms of personality but just as lovable. She is soft-spoken, anxious, and full of self-doubt, but get her talking about a subject she’s interested in and lights up with joy as Quill quickly learns. Her growth in confidence as the book goes on while dealing with her affinity to ink feels partially due to Quill’s influence as the two grow close but just as much her wanting to take action to help with the situation Quill and Amadea have gotten themselves into. Quill likewise learns to think things through more, be more careful, and suspect in his actions as he tries to figure out what happened to his friend. Through her eyes, we learn how harrowing it is to have an affinity and learn about the Oruzandi’s culture and how it is very conducive to Ynni’s condition. If Amadea is the voice of reason, Ynni is the voice of compassion and caution. She has a lot of empathy for others, and the readers likewise get plenty of it by reading her perspective. Richa Langyuan is a member of the Vigilant Kinship, the equivalent of the lawkeepers in Semelia. Langyun is straight-up the beat detective of the story whose chapters tend to contain all the juicy tropes of a whodunit story I love. He has a checkered past that colors his perspective on the case when his instincts tell him it doesn’t feel right. He is ordered to stop asking so many questions, but that only makes him want to ask more. When the choice of his career or the truth is presented to him, he puts the white hat on and chooses the truth.

All of this is helped by the rapport of the point-of-view characters. Amadea and Richa both have their pasts, secrets, and jobs to do, which sometimes clash, but often, you can see they have a good banter back and forth between them. Likewise, as the book goes on, it’s clear that Ynni and Quill have a growing affinity to each other. They grow closer as the conspiracy unwraps, each being there for the other, Quill casually flirting with Ynni, Ynni growing more fond of Quill as he sticks around. By the end, Quill and Ynni are so adorable together that it’s easy to put aside that their meet-cute is built on a traumatic incident and just rooting for them to smooch. Likewise, the mutual respect between Amadea and Richa feels like there might be something more there, but not necessarily. The supporting cast goes a long way, as well. From the eccentric members of the Imperial Archives to the Semelian Royal Family, each helps set the tone for the scenes they’re in and the overarching story. It helps that Evan’s dialog doesn’t suffer from people don’t talk like this, even with the fantasy concepts thrown in. It has levity, hubris, longing, frustration, flirtation, and utter fear that you can read coming out of these characters when they speak.

I could write a thousand more words about why I love this book, probably more, but I’d prefer you go out, support it, read it yourself, and get the same feeling I did when I first read it. Empire of Exiles by Erin M. Evans is a triumph of fantasy, murder mystery, and political thriller that handles grief, PTSD, panic, and anxiety disorder with tact. Its characters, from the protagonists to the supporting cast, are lovable and flawed, with villains that are inexcusable with swagger you can’t help but smile at. The reveals will have you reeling but unable to stop reading. I cannot wait to read what Evans has cooking up for the follow-up.

Check out No Page Unturned, a book podcast featuring this reviewer on the Geeklyinc network

Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Orbit Books.

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Follow Joshua MacDougall @FourofFiveWits on Twitter.

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