Empire of Shadows by Miriam Forster was a highly anticipated read of mine. I really enjoyed City of a Thousand Dolls when I read it and could not wait for the companion novel which goes back about 20 years into the past of the Bihnian Empire and tells the story of an attempted with all sorts of intrigue.
Mara is a Tiger Sune (yes, A TIGER) who is trained as a highly elite bodyguard. As a way to redeem herself after she commits a tragic crime, Mara dedicates her life to the protection of others. She must pledge herself to one specific person and protect that person's life with her own. She makes her way to the capital and meets many people along the way including a charming fabric seller named Emil. She also meets Revathi, a noblewoman, and her fiancé. Mara agrees to be Revathi's bodyguard until she decides to whom she will pledge her life of protection. Mara never transfers into her tiger form anymore and is, indeed, afraid to. She suddenly finds herself in the palace where nothing is as it seems, and everyone lies. Emil, charming goat herder and fabric seller, is the other half of this story. He is bound for a life of leadership of his tribe, but does not want it. He longs to be in charge of the trade, like his uncle, not the leader like his father. When his brother decides to join a group of mercenaries and runs away, Emil defies his father and goes after him taking his friend Esmer (a spotted cat Sune) with him. Suddenly Emil and Esmer find themselves immersed in a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor, one that has dragged Mara and Revathi as well as Emil's brother into serious danger.
Mara is amazing. I mean, she's a TIGER, so how could she not be? But she is also fiercely loyal and a wonderful friend. She is just a truly good person with high ideals and a powerful desire to do what is right. She fell far and hard once upon a time and is doing everything in her power to atone for it. Revathi is also a great character. Harsh and hardened by the life in the Emperor's court, it takes her time to warm to Mara, but it happens eventually. I just really liked the friendship that developed between these two. Mara was meant to protect Revathi, but they both end up protecting each other and it is great. Emil is also a character who it is easy to love. He has a firm opinion of what is right for him. He went along with his father for as long as he could, but when it came time to do what was right and reconcile with his brother, he never flinches from the hard perilous road he is traveling. Esmer is a wonderfully loyal friend as well, and one who knows Emil well enough for them to work perfectly together. Because she knows Mara's secret, she is also able to work with and help her. The friendship between Emil and Esmer was another favorite part of this book for me. It is just a friendship and those male/female friendships with absolutely no hint of romance are rare. I love that this book gave us so many wonderful relationships: the friendships, the brotherly love between Emil and Stefan, the relationship between Revathi and her grandmother, the two young princes' brotherly bond, and the love of the Emperor for his children. These were all shown so beautifully.
A relationship that didn't satisfy me at all in this was the romantic relationship. There really wasn't sufficient time to devote to its development with the way the plot was set up so it felt very rushed. There is very little actual page time where Emil and Mara are actually together yet it's true love. I almost had whiplash from how fast that happened. Romances like this are never satisfying for me. I would have preferred the hint at romantic potential with some development (the kissing scene was fine-liked that) without the LOVE part. The epilogue would take care of the rest.
Because this story isn't really a romance.
It's a story about politics, loyalty, honor, and knowing yourself as a person and where you stand. I appreciated how there were so many shades of gray in this too. There are several situations in which any decision could be construed as the "right" one. There are so many different ways things could have gone. Forster captured the chaos of battle and the affect of threats on a person's actions so well. I also liked that Forster was unafraid to let her villains be villains. They do stuff that will have you cringing. She never takes the easy way out of a situation and the effect is incredibly realistic.
I really liked this though I do like the first book slightly more. The romance part was just a little too much for me in this one. You can read this separate from City of a Thousand Dolls. You may be spoiled for some surprises in this if you read that first, but the opposite is also the case. Read this first, and you will have inside information going into City of a Thousand Dolls. Whichever order you decide to read them in, you should certainly read them if you're a fan of political intrigue fantasy.
I read an e-galley provided by the publisher, Harper Teen, via Edelweiss. Empire of Shadows is available for purchase on November 4th.