Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Empire of Shadows - Miriam Forster

Title: Empire of Shadows
Author: Miriam Forster
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 489 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 24, 2015
Finished: February 25, 2015

From the inside cover:

Cast out of her family three years ago, Mara turned to the only place that would take her - a school where students train to protect others. But Mara is stunned when guarding a noble girl in the Empire's capital turns out to be more dangerous than she could have imagined. More shocking still, she finds the boy she thought she had lost forever outside the gates of her new home.

Mara knew the dizzying Imperial city would hold dangers. How could she have known that her heart, as well as her life, would be at stake?

Empire of Shadows will take readers on a spellbinding journey into the world Miriam Forster first introduced in City of a Thousand Dolls - a world with a divided society, deadly courtiers, heroic traitors, and deeply laid conspiracies.

I read City of a Thousand Dolls a couple years back and loved it to pieces, so picking up this novel set in the same universe (it's actually a prequel, but you don't realize it until much later) goes without saying. Thankfully all the things I loved about the first book are present here again, which allowed me to seamlessly slip back into this incredible book's universe.

Mara is a tiger Sune, cast out of her tribe for a terrible crime. Taking refuge at the Order of Khatar and vowing to forever remain in her human form, Mara hopes to offer penance by training to be a bodyguard that chooses who they serve until death. Upon her release three years later, she must travel to find that charge. Along the way, she meets Emil and his twin brother Stefan of the Kildi, the finds her way to the capital city of Kamal where she is hired to guard and later pledges herself to Revathi sa'Hoi of the Flower caste. When news of rebellion spreads throughout the city, Emil, Stefan, Mara, and Revathi become entangled in it and try to make it out alive while still retaining their humanity.

The same amazing world-building is present here again. The south-east Asian influences abound here, mostly Indian but I also got the sense of perhaps Middle Eastern among the Kildi, but that could've been just me. We get more of a feel for the Sune (the shape-shifters) and the Kildi (the nomadic peoples) in this book through Mara, Esmer, Emil, and Stefan, and also a great look into the nobility through Revathi. Although this book didn't quite have the suspense and the intrigue that the first book did, it's still an enriching experience to be able to add to the reader's knowledge of the book's universe and history, which is expansive and impressive.

I loved Mara as a character. She's so overwrought with guilt and trying to make amends for it, but eventually grows to understand that her past actions don't define her as a individual, that she needs to embrace her animal self as part of her character in order to be true to herself. I also love that she's a tiger Sune, and that we also got to see more than just the cat Sune from the first book, it was fun to read about characters just transforming into tigers and bears instantaneously and switching back so seamlessly.

I also have to give the author credit for the romance between Mara and Emil, it was very well done. Though the feelings of love come on pretty quickly, Mara and Emil don't allow the relationship to blind them to other things going on around them. Mara pledges herself to Revathi despite knowing that vow will bind the two together beyond all others, because she knows Revathi needs a friend to protect her, and at that moment, that is more important to her than her relationship with Emil. The friendship between the two girls was very refreshing too, Revathi doesn't have friends in the palace because of the back-stabbing that court life entails, so seeing her able to confide and trust in Mara was sweet. The little princes stole the show whenever they were in any scenes at the palace, I loved them.

I loved how you didn't quite see the connection between the books until much later. Esmer appears in both books, but since the timeline is difficult to measure, you aren't sure how everything comes together until the very end.

If you haven't read City of a Thousand Dolls and this accompanying book, Empire of Shadows, you need to read them. You'll be met by a wonderful fantasy realm that's rooted in eastern influences, with amazingly well-rounded characters, and a story that sucks you in and doesn't let you go until long after you've reached the last page.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the similarities between the first book's cover and this one, the statues almost guarding the entrance with the palace in the background, complete with Mara and Emil in the center to the point where you barely even notice that they're there.

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