Book Review: Empire of the Vampire, by Jay Kristoff
Title: Empire of the Vampire
Series: Empire of the Vampire
Author: Jay Kristoff
Much like its outstanding cover, this book won't be one that you'll easily forget.
The Empire of the Vampire tells the story of a world plunged into darkness, where the sun is veiled and vampires walk freely. The story takes place over three timelines, each telling a different part of the life of our protagonist, Gabriel de León. Two of these timelines (and 95% of the novel) are explored in a conversation between Gabriel and a vampire historian who is noting down his life story. I feel as though I have to start by discussing this as I believe it may be a driving factor in how much enjoyment readers can glean from this novel. The structure is non-linear, as Gabriel narrates us through his own story on a whim.
"This is not the way stories are told, Silversaint."
"I know. But I'm hoping the suspense will kill you."
What at first I thought was just an attempt to do something a little different in the structure of a novel, turned out to be a masterfully crafted journey. The author, Jay Kristoff, knows exactly what he is doing when it comes to jumping us from one timeline to another and he does it in the full knowledge (as shown via his use of the historian) that it will at first annoy readers. But, by the end of the story, I found myself being able to pick up on underlying threads that helped me to tie the story together before it reached its conclusion, and also left me wanting to read more in future novels as we already have allusions as to what will take place.
That is not to say that the jumping timelines don't come with flaws. As I've pointed out, it can be frustrating in the early parts of the story and I struggled to connect with characters for a time as I didn't feel like I was allowed to sit with them for long enough before being thrown into an entirely different cast with entirely different stories. But from about 40% of the way through it all began to click and I found I enjoyed what I had left far more.
With that out of the way, I have to admit that I don't have many more criticisms of the book. The world is well realised, brutal, and unforgiving. It feels real, as though this truly would be what would happen if these events had unfolded. There's no single great battle that wins the day, nor one villain. Characters lose fights when they should lose them and they die as a result, regardless of what role they believe they still have to play.
Yes, we are dealing with prophecies again. But, I'm a sucker for a prophecy! Tropes are tropes for a reason and if you can do them well then there's absolutely no reason you shouldn't work them into your story. Kristoff does that wonderfully with this story, treating the prophecy as a great mystery that has to be unraveled. Much of this intrigue comes from our POV not knowing the answers themself. He's a man on a mission of his own when the world (and perhaps divine intervention?) sweeps him up onto another. He doesn't have all the answers, nor does he want them and that makes everything feel more real, more gritty, and more at risk.
The story, despite having worldwide stakes, feels very personal. We as the reader are often teased with Gabriel's past; great sieges and heroics from his glory days. But we rarely get to see them. I think this was a personal choice by Kristoff and I'm still struggling with whether I think it worked or not. There are numerous occasions where we could see gratifying giant battles as undead hordes strike against solid walls and strong men, but we don't. Instead, we're treated to more personal conflicts. I think as I write this, that with this only being book one in the series that I'm okay with it. There is still the promise of more and I just hope we get to experience Gabriel's prime.
Away from the action, which this book does brilliantly, I was surprised by how well the emotional threads resonated with me. There are times when this book is gutwrenching and it speaks to how well developed our main protagonist and his relationships with other characters are. The way that these relationships are explored also lead to very realistic depictions of people questioning their faith. Religion plays a key role in this story and the question of why would an all-powerful God let bad things happen is one that is frequently explored by the characters who share differing views. This theme may not be for everyone, but as someone who personally holds no faith, I found it to be a brilliant depiction of both sides of the discussion and I think that's only possible when the characters and their relationships feel as real as they do here.
Overall, this was a thrilling ride that has left me clamouring for the next book. If you're a fan of dark fantasy, or even just fantasy in general, then I would highly recommend picking this book up over the holidays. It's long, but you'll soon burn through, particularly the latter half of the book, as you slowly become addicted to the world and characters.
Final Rating: 8/10