The Empire of Salt has declined and fallen. What is left is Darien – a city ruled through a puppet king by twelve noble families. Magic has faded too, and only the wealthy manage to hoard anything more than trinkets. Plague ravages the countryside, and children steal to survive. Society is old and tired, looking back to an earlier age to avoid thinking about the failures and compromises of the modern day. There’s no pride, justice, or nobility left.
Darien focuses on a cast of characters who want something more. A thief who dreams of a treasure hoard, a girl who dreams of justice. A gang leader with memories of a nobler calling and a general tired of pointless orders. Darien has been in placid decline for centuries, but times are changing. Plans and paths converge, beginning a chain of events that will either destroy the city or redeem it.
C. F. Iggulden is actually Conn Iggulden, writing under a different name. Take a moment to recover from the shock of that reveal. Conn Iggulden is primarily known for stories set in ancient Rome, and that comes through in this book. There’s a realism to the prose and the ideas, like a sepia filter. The story feels old, and it feels as though it could have really happened. Even the magical elements – which become increasingly noticeable through the novel – blend in seamlessly. Suspension of disbelief is not a problem. “Historical fantasy” isn’t a genre, as far as I’m aware, but I find that I rather like it.
The book jumps between perspectives a lot – there are a lot of different characters each with their own, eventually-interweaving plotlines. One thing I liked about this book is that subplots genuinely are interwoven, rather than there being one main thread with the others just tacked on. The overall plot is about the city, not the characters, but each of the characters’ roles is important – with one thread missing, everything would change, and it’s not always obvious how a particular piece will fit in until it’s in place. It makes an interesting change from plot-driven main-quest fantasy.
Darien is a quick read – either because it’s relatively short for the genre, or because it rattles along fast. Perhaps due to the unusual plot structure, it never drags; even the quieter scenes move rapidly. In places, I actually would have liked the narrative to slow down a little, to spread out the events and build the tension more slowly. When events start snowballing, the pace accelerates rather inexorably. The book could have handled more space to explore itself without growing tedious.
It’s definitely fantasy – there’s magic and everything. It ranges from little trinkets to fire conjuring and giant sword-wielding robots. There are hints throughout though, that Darien is set in some future version of our world. I’m not a huge fan of “actually the future” elements in my fantasy – it bugged me in Dragonriders of Pern, and grates a little every time it occurs in anything else. That is a personal quirk though, not a criticism. I don’t like time travel either, but I accept that tastes differ.
The tagline for the book mentions that it’s part of a series. Presumably, the next couple of years will reveal a second Empire of Salt book. The story is really quite self-contained though – there’s no obvious main hook for a sequel. The story reaches a natural end, with all the characters disposed off in satisfying ways and places.
I enjoyed Darien. It’s rather different to standard epic fantasy – the plot, the prose, almost everything is non-standard. Fantasy is a genre that tends to stagnation, and Darien is absolutely kicking against that. It’s a refreshing and engrossing book, and I’d enjoy reading more like it.
I received a copy of Darien free through NetGalley.com. I don’t believe that this has affected my impartiality, but honesty is allegedly a virtue.