Monday, February 25, 2019

Review: Empire of Light by Alex Harrow

I first encountered the author at a League of Utah Writers conference.  They were co-teaching a crash course on Writing the Other and since, I've been on a panel on diversity with them and followed their Twitter obsessively.

I know their philosophies and inclinations well, so anticipated a very interesting read when I signed up for Empire of Light.  I was fascinated by the promise of comparisons to Firefly and honestly wanted to read a book written under the influence of everything I've learned from Alex's various teaching opportunities.

Let me first say that this is not a book for the faint of heart.  It is a post-apocalyptic New York City in which the space program was scrapped because Earth's inhabitants needed to spend those resources on survival.  There is a kind of caste system that makes the Hunger Games look like a feel-good system of democracy.  There are superpowers out there (the Voyance that the subtitle references), but I don't think I've seen such a polarized magic system since the conflict between Sith and Jedi.

It is not a book for the faint of heart, but it is absolutely worth the read.  When I was given the ARC, Alex included a list of caveats telling the readers about possible hot-button subjects covered in the book.  I read through them all out of curiosity, but was interested to see how jarring they would be when they came up.

The strength of this book is exactly in that polarity.  Alex sets healthy relationships against deeply flawed ones.  We see the damage done within a complicated and damaged family, but also the ties that create a different kind of family.  We are absolutely compelled to keep reading because we  can't identify a single reason to take a side.  (This is also affected by the fact that I am absolutely a fan of one of the most brutal characters.)  It brings to mind the line from Episode III of Star Wars:  "There are heroes on both sides.  Evil is everywhere."  It is hard to trust a single character's actions or motivations, particularly when there is no lack of effective plot twists.

The fight scenes are fantastically written, particularly because of the integration of voluntary and involuntary defensive magical powers.  The system has rules and consequences that speak well of their planning and make me feel a great deal of excitement for whatever comes next.

I recommend this book highly, as you can tell, but it is one where the seedy underbelly of a society and the depravity of a society in a state of collapse are described graphically.  Drug abuse and addiction are major parts of the story, as are very personalized physical and emotional abuse. Those who are not comfortable with profanity should know that it is used as a natural part of the dialogue and I described it as "between Seanan McGuire and George R.R. Martin on a level of how many people punctuate dialogue with profanity."  One early scene was graphically intimate, but I found myself more comfortable with the more passing references to intimate pairings.  I am not as familiar with stories written by and about characters of different sexualities and sexual preferences, but I found their depiction of a demisexual narrator to be both authentic and realistic.  It was actually the first overt depiction of a demisexual that I have seen since discovering that it is a term I relate to, so as soon as Alex inserted that characteristic into the story, I paid attention to the perspective even more. 

I am grateful that I can tell you about this story on its release date and hope you will all go check it out.

Buy here!

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