Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke – Book Review
So, City of Lies was one of my favourite reads of the last few years, and perhaps no sequel has been quite so anticipated in that time. It took a little longer than expected, but I had plenty to read in the meantime. When I finally got my hands on an ARC of Hollow Empire, I pushed everything out of the way to read it – and I do mean everything!
My review of City of Lies is here, but in short the books stood out and won my heart because of the choices it made. The book took some standard fantasy elements, like political intrigue, hidden peril, and emerging magic, and infused the already excellent blend with characters and worldbuilding choices that were subtly unique. That’s not to say they are minor, only that they aren’t flashy, in-your-face, window-dressing sort of changes.
For example, nothing about the setting is taken for granted (i.e. just lifted from our world), and the choices about the type of fantasy world it is flow through all the characters and the plot. In City of Lies, this made for a unique and transportive experience, though occasionally jarring and not without a few rough edges.
For Hollow Empire, Sam Hawke has kept all the remarkable uniqueness of the first while leveling up every aspect of storytelling, from plotting to characterisation, to make it not only a worthy sequel, but one that realises the full potential of the series – and leaves you wanting even more.
This book is in some ways almost a replay of the first – not a repeat, but one of those sequels that takes the same magic formula and renews it. Hollow Empire retains everything I loved – the intrigue, the small team of outsiders struggling to prevent disaster, a way of life under threat but worth saving – while expanding all of it – the world, the set of characters, the dimensions of intrigue – in astounding ways. It’s history repeating (for both reader and characters), but in a city and to people scarred and striving to adapt after the events of the first book. The sense of innocence the characters had in City of Lies has been well and truly shattered and has not recovered here – which in some respects is a bit of a shame, but makes for a gripping, perilous tale. And just because innocence is lost, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still fighting for their principles.
With the full introduction of Silasta’s many and diverse neighbours, the world really fills out – and with the added aspect of diplomacy, the intrigue levels up from checkers to 3D chess. Silasta did feel a bit of a fishbowl before, but that is well and truly shattered here, and with that come new threats as well as unexpected allies (but it’s never clear which is which!). The layers of intrigue get quite complex, but it’s all deftly handled, and pays off spectacularly.
Favourite characters return – a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit more damaged – and new ones are introduced that fit perfectly into the gaps, making it all the more heartbreaking when the plot puts them through the wringer. As with the intrigue, the added characters enrich the story rather than crowding it, making the teeming city really teem, and the families feel as full and messy as families are. It’s quite heart-wrenching to care for so many characters when you know you can’t trust most of them, but it’s a brilliant counterpoint to fantasies that feel they have to be full of arseholes to be compelling (not that there aren’t a few!).
In summary, Hollow Empire delivers mystery, suspense, thrills, action, setbacks, puzzles, red herrings, emotional gut-punches, moments of despair – and triumph – and even a little romance, taking what made the first book so special and delivering a true fantasy masterpiece. I really hope we haven’t seen the last of the Poison Wars, but either way, this book has, for me, cemented its legacy.