Fantasy Book Review: Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff

Fantasy Book Review

Title
Empire of the Vampire
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publication Date: Sept 14th 2022
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Genres: Epic Fantasy

Vampires and epic fantasy are a match made in heaven - or hell, as the case may be - but the last series to really make me stand up and take notice was the Necroscope: Vampire World trilogy by Brian Lumley. Those epic, horrific, wildly imaginative doorstoppers set the bar for me and, fair or not, have been the standard against which I so often find other vampire fantasies wanting.

Never mind melancholy brooding and tragic romances, I want vampires who know they're monsters, who revel in their evil, and who are damned well prepared to seize the opportunity of eternal undeath to make the world their own. The cover blurb for Empire of the Vampire promised just that, but given that I only knew Jay Kristoff as a YA author who didn't seem particularly dark or edgy, it took me a few months (and a holiday hardcover sale) to finally give this a chance.

To steal a line from Gabriel de León, fuck my face, this was amazing . . . this was vampires done right AND epic fantasy done right . . . this was all the darkness, violence, and eternal arrogance that I craved . . . along with one of the best explorations of faith in the war against the darkness that I've ever read. I'm still not completely sure about those endings (and, more importantly, lack of one ending), even after mulling it over for a few days, but I'll be right there, first in line at the bookstore, whenever the sequel drops.

The narrative style employed here has been done before, of course, but rarely with the same attitude and sense of style. If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the conversation between Kihrin and Talon in The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons, only there's more fatalism and restrained aggression here. in fact, the verbal sparring between Gabriel and Jean-François is what initially drew me into the story, despite my misgivings, and kept me reading right through to the end where a few surprising moments of empathy on behalf of the vampire historian transformed the whole telling.

While I'm not generally a fan of stories that jump around in time, leaping from one narrative to another, what makes this so successful is the fact that it's a tug-of-war between an historian trying to steer the narrative and a paleblood trying to thwart him, all the while desperately wanting to avoid an emotional toll. It creates so much anticipation, giving the reader just enough information to crave answers, and leads us into a series of climaxes, each one more devastating than the one before it. I don't think a linear narrative would have worked half as well, or felt half as genuine.

For a world of eternal darkness and pain, one where everyone seems to be fighting against the inevitable end of humanity, I expected a mix of sad fatalism and religious fervor - and we get that, we do - but I didn't expect the characters to be so engaging. Gabriel is one of the more complex protagonists I've encountered in fantasy, a man of darkness and light, damned by his birth and cursed by the way he lives his life. There's a lot of talk here about what makes a hero, about the difference between duty and glory, recklessness and foolishness, and I give Kristoff full credit for drawing us so close to him, making us take his side in every questionable decision, only to drop some questions or suggestions at the very end that make us wonder if he'll be the man to save us, or whether he's the man who already damned us.

The characters surrounding him, Silversaint Brother and Holy Sisters, and complex and engaging as well, several with character arcs that are surprisingly deep and meaningful for a supporting cast. There were men who I loathed before I loved and women I adored before I abhorred. Nobody is left unchanged by their role in this cataclysm of darkness and pain, and that's as it should be. It's not just those of holy/unholy power either, it's the common soldiers and blacksmiths as well.

Beneath it all is the whole aspect of faith, the idea of believing in something or someone, and that is where Empire of the Vampire shines brightest. What could be a simple story of good versus evil, God versus Devil, becomes so much more in Kristoff's hands. There's faith in God, and faith in the remnants of old religions still scattered about the world. There's faith in the word of God, as written by man, and faith in the construct of religion, as interpreted by man. There's no question that life encompasses more than simple mortality, but there's also no hard-and-fast declaration that it comes from God or Devil. Tied up in all of that are two questions - what is sin and what is love - and they have more power over events than prayer, holy water, or enchanted silver. Exploring those questions between two couples, and the ways in which they intersect, is, I would argue, the very heart of the novel.

Finally, for a novel about the epic struggle of a handful of humans against the hordes of the undead, the fight sequences and battle scenes here are absolutely fantastic. There are different kinds of undead, different levels of vampires, and those who are the most powerful don't go down easily - if at all. There's a palatable sense of danger and dread to every encounter, even with the miraculous healing powers of the Silversaints, and the choreography of throwing everything you have - swords, knives, alchemical bombs, holy water, etc. - against flesh that refuses to bleed, chipping and cracking like marble, is breathtaking. 

Empire of the Vampire was so much more than I expected and everything I dared hope for. The lack of one ending still grates on me, but the climaxes of the other threads carry enough emotional weight that I won't soon forget them. I love how the final chapters seem to twist everything, how they undermine so many of our assumptions, and even if there are some red herrings and false doubts there, I'm ridiculously anxious to read whatever comes next. Highly, highly recommended.

Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't say a few words about the gorgeous illustrations by Bon Orthwick - if there was ever a book where investing in the hardcover is a must, it's this one. I can't tell you how many times I paused to admire the images, to reflect on what they illustrate, and to find them coloring the read. Exquisite stuff.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

Comments

  1. Wow awesome review. This is on my list to read for sure this year. I'm so curious about "a lack of one ending"!

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  2. I'm glad everyone is enjoying this !

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