Nathan’s review of Empire of Exiles by Erin M Evans
I had very few expectations going into this book. I’m not the biggest fan of the mystery genre and everything about the marketing about this book screamed “generic fantasy world” to me. Well, Erin Evans definitely proved me wrong in every way, and I absolutely devoured this book over a couple of sittings.
The novel takes place in a small country on an isthmus/peninsula behind a giant wall made of salt. There are evil magical creatures on the other side of the wall known as Changelings that can control people’s bodies, thoughts, and actions. They swept throughout the continent, ravaging chaos wherever they went. The survivors moved all moved behind the salt wall, giving their allegiance to their emperors. This conceit for a story is so clever and Evans uses it to its maximum potential. On one hand the existence of the Changelings creates a tangible feeling of paranoia and anxiety throughout the book. Have the Changelings crossed the wall? Who is good and who is bad? While reading I kept thinking that this book was like the White Walkers from A Song of Ice and Fire turned up the maximum speed because the Changelings are not only on the other side of the wall, they can literally control people like puppets.
Evans also uses her worldbuilding to explore the ramifications of all of the survivors coming in and forming a single nation (where the title of the book gets its name). Evans fills her book to the brim with people of different nationalities, ethnicities, races, and species. For example, one of the POV characters, Yinii, is a member of a species that has horns and a third eye that allows them to see in the dark. Evans world feels so complete and lived in because the setting is full of diverse people with different religions, worldviews, and philosophies.
I do want to point out that a lot of the worldbuilding in this book is quite passive. There are no info-dumps, and as the reader you have to put a lot of the pieces together on your own. This creates some confusion in the beginning as you try and follow what is happening in both the plot and the worldbuilding. In most cases this just par for the course in reading epic fantasy, but there are some of the ethnicities/nationalities that are thrown at you with such speed that they all just felt the “same” and I didn’t really make any attempts to separate the minor ones out. I would like to see this developed more in the sequels!
Evans has also imbued her novel with some interesting magic, although don’t go looking for an “all magic, all the time” kind of story. Other than the Changelings that I talked about earlier, there are some people who have specialized magical power over particular elements or substances (think things like copper, ink, bronze, wool, iron, etc.). The strength of their power cycles, and at its peak the magic can overwhelm the user. This puts the magic user into an extreme state in which they are of a danger to themselves and others. Because of this, individuals with powerful skills are sent to the Archives where they can be monitored (not necessarily in a really bad way, but in a “we need to keep everyone safe” kind of way). At the Archives, the magic users become specialists in order to help preserve and document the world’s many wonders that were brought with them during the Exile. The “Spiral” creates a lot of tension in the book since magic users are so powerful, but also so unstable. This creates a particularly tense climax to the novel for a few of the characters!
And yes, there are plot twists! I’m not a reader who tries to “predict” what will happen (I just like to be shocked!), and there were definitely some twists and turns that completely got me! And, unlike a lot of other twisty or other mystery fantasies, I never felt like the twists were unfair or unearned. They all make sense in the context of the story, characters, and setting.
Concluding Thoughts: Erin Evans has written a propulsive fantasy mystery with subtle yet intricate worldbuilding and the promise of much bigger things to come in future books.