Good morning everyone! I’d like to start by thanking Netgalley and Rebellion Publishing for what was a pretty interesting ARC. I have to admit, I have put this review off for about a week, because it is hard to review a book that you wanted to like so bad, but ended up feeling disappointed. Shadow in the Empire of the Light promised so much (Strong magical women! Family political intrigue! Gigantic magical talking cats!) and yet, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So without further ado…
From the Publisher:
A magical novel of intrigue, mystery and family drama from the award-winning author of Aramaya and Fire Angels!
Shine’s life is usually dull: an orphan without magic in a family of powerful mages, she’s left to run the family estate with only an eccentric aunt and telepathic cat for company.
But when the family descend on the house for the annual Fertility Festival, Shine is plunged into intrigue; stolen letters, a fugitive spy and family drama mix with an unexpected murder, and Shine is forced to decide both her loyalties and future…
Wow, that was a lackluster description. Let me try a little better. Shine lives in a society that is run by strong female mages in an imperialistic society. There are men who are also mages, but they are not as strong and are generally viewed as breeders (quote: “Men! They seem to have nothing better to do than hang around making a nuisance of themselves”). If you do not have magic, you are considered lesser, and if you are born into a magical family with no magic, you are only a handful of steps above the peasantry and are still expected to help the magical people in your family.
Shine is one of those people, and she runs the “family farm,” as it were, for her family, which is a not-so-distant branch of the imperial family. Splendance is the matriarch, whose role is the bless the fields and keep the other female mages in line and producing other female mages for the line. The various branches of the family are all conspiring against one another, and Shine only has a handful of allies in this pit of vipers.
When her favorite cousin rescues a “ghost” from the mines on their borders (in Shine’s society, everyone is POC, and their neighboring kingdom is very pale), Shine is roped into protecting him from her family during their Fertility Festival long enough to get the ghost to his embassy in the capital city. This would be a lot easier if there weren’t people at the gathering who need the ghost dead…
What I Loved:
- The Worldbuild. While I found Shadow in the Empire of Light lacking in a lot of ways (see below), I think that the “bones,” aka the worldbuild, is pretty stellar. The idea of a matriarchal society where inheritance is based on a magical matrilineal line is intriguing, and a direct mirror to the “common” British imperial style of oldest male child inheritance. Similarly, the “less useful” members of the family (here, nonmagical people) are given allowances by the family office to make sure no one is destitute, but everyone contributes. The outer villages like Shine’s feed (literally and figuratively) into the capital city and produce money for the family office that is metro based. The economy of the empire is largely based on the magic itself, as well as the crystal mines, since the crystals enhance mages’ powers. What is also wild is that the crystals will enhance natural magic in all living things, so you get giant glowing cats and floating mice in forests, which is, in a word, awesome.
- The Ghost. In this crazy world of magic and imperialism, the Ghost provides a really interesting foil as an outsider looking in. He is a scholar and type of doctor back home, but was investigating wrongdoing when his party was slaughtered and he was the only survivor. The Ghost is more “prudish” than the other characters from Shine’s world (as in, he doesn’t want to be ogled, have sex with random people, and have his penis talked about…), but he still flirts a little. He was initially portrayed as a bit of a caricature of a foreigner, but as time goes on, the Ghost gains his own voice and shows that Shine’s world is crazy and people “across the desert” are probably more similar to what we consider the real world.
- Katti the giant telepathic cat. Like what always seems to happen in books with shoddy human characters, the animal ones stand out all the more. Katti is Shine’s, for lack of a better term, adopted mama cat, since Katti considers Shine her original baby. They are telepathically bonded in a way that Empire of Light doesn’t go into detail, but seems extremely rare for the worldbuild. Katti is just a fun and playful cat that happens to be the size of a St. Bernard (who wouldn’t love that?) and who has very strong opinions about most people Shine encounters. She is, in short, my dream pet.
What I Disliked:
- The Rest of the Characters. Shine’s massive family are all detestable (save maybe Bright and his mother). The women are all domineering and rude, the men are all either weak minded or generally shitty people, and none of them learn. The female mages are given carte blanche to be horrible to people and have sex with whomever they want (even though there is a law that is supposed to stop that), and the cousins are expected to interbreed (ew. I could read Tudor English literature if I was into incest). Most of them are drug addicts, and there basically isn’t a single redeeming character amongst the core group. Shine herself isn’t even particularly likeable – she is in many ways a normal teenager/young adult, longing to leave her small town, but in other ways, she is also a crude and unempathetic individual. For example, she continually objectifies the Ghost by looking at his body and discussing his penis, while he continually tells her it makes him uncomfortable. While I get that all of the characters are a product of their society, it makes for rough reading.
- The Flawed Execution of a Sex Positive Matriarchal Society. Whoa, that was a mouthful. However, it gets to the heart of it: I grabbed this ARC because I was so excited about a matriarchal society where women are sex positive, there is no slut shaming, and women are not at risk. What I got instead was a complete flip side of what we have now, with the women rulers either being puppets or tyrants, and the men being objectified as much as (if not more) than women are in our society. The women spend a lot of time talking about the men’s pricks and lovers they’ve taken (way to fail the Bechtel test) and it doesn’t even come out as sex positive anymore. Instead, it comes out as women being assholes, which I don’t *think* was the intent, but it ends up hurting rather than helping the image of a strong female society. Furthermore, the “strong women” are not all that strong at all. There is only two strong female bonds in Empire of Light, and both of them are closer to codependent or apologetic than unconditionally loving.
While there are other things I disliked about the book, I think those two high-level items get to the core of why Empire of Light was not the book for me.
To be honest, I had mixed feelings (more than indicated above) while reading Shadow in the Empire of Light. I was conflicted about the subject matter, because despite disliking almost all of the characters and the overarching plotline, I still devoured this book in a day and a half. I am conflicted in how to categorize this, because even though it is listed as YA, the amount of sex (consensual and non-consensual) and doing drugs that is involved without any sort of concept of consequences makes me wary to give this to a teenager (Although the naming convention is ridiculously YA, as I have to go and edit the name of the book in my review because I assumed it was “and Light”).
I would recommend to people who want to see more books featuring flawed female characters, and who want to see radically different societal structures. I would tell readers to appreciate the scene and background setup, like flying magical animals and interesting religious undertones. I am also aware that other readers may not dislike some of the elements listed above as much as I did.
So, I am giving Empire of Light three waves despite a gut instinct to give it 2, because I do think this has a readership, just not me. Preorder here and here for a nice winter read, out January 2021! Also bonus: This book is coming in paperback, so you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg!