Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Published: December 2020
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Series: Poison Wars #2
Genres: Fantasy
Available: Abbey’s ~ Amazon (AU, CA, UK, US) ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia ~ Dymocks ~ Indiebound ~ Kobo

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
The author is a friend. I have done my best to give an unbiased review.

When I decided to revive the Earl Grey Editing blog, I’d originally intended to resume at the beginning of 2021: a new year, a new start. Then I heard that Hollow Empire was being released in December and I knew I couldn’t wait. City of Lies was such a stunning debut that I needed to get my hands on the sequel ASAP.

Two years have passed since the siege of Silasta. On the surface, the city has healed. Tensions still exist between the Darfri and the Silastans, but work is being done to bridge the rift. This has brought changes to the city: the population has increased, bringing correspondingly higher rates of crime.

Nevertheless, the Oromani siblings have prospered, lauded for their role in saving the city. However, the popular view of them is quite different. While Kalini is held up as the beloved saviour of Silasta, the secretive nature of Jovan’s role and its association with poison means he is commonly viewed as a sinister and shadowy figure in the background. This view of Jovan becomes a particular problem when it becomes apparent that an enemy is waging a subtle war to smear his reputation.

The characters remain one of the strongest aspects of this series. Although only two years have passed, Kalini and Jovan feel like they have matured, having had time to settle into adulthood without their Tashi. Nor have the other characters remained static. Tain has less of a presence in this book than the previous, but it’s clear that being poisoned has had an ongoing impact on his health. Hadrea remains as prickly as ever, in part due to her dissatisfaction with her training as a Speaker. Her irascibility serves to make the cracks in her relationship with Jovan all the more plain.

However, Hollow Empire isn’t a book solely about bringing the old gang back; it features new characters, too. With his Tashi gone and now that he’s not reeling from one disaster to the next (well, at least in the beginning), Jovan must ensure a proofer is ready to step up in case something happens to him. Enter Dija. Although she’s only 13 years old, she’s smart and wise beyond her years, level-headed in a crisis… of which there are plenty to test her mettle. She’s also good with people and quick to play the wide-eyed innocent, making her an excellent spy — and bringing together the strengths of both Oromani siblings. I rather hope we might see her as a point-of-view character in the future. Seeing her awkward, yet affectionate relationship with Jovan was a highlight of the book.

This relationship also affords a chance for the reader to experience along with Jovan the flip side of the relationship between proofer and apprentice. As an apprentice, Jovan trusted his uncle implicitly, bearing through the poisonings that were part of his training and working hard to develop the knowledge necessary for the role. As the teacher, Jovan is faced with the necessity of repeatedly poisoning a child, a fact with which he struggles, even as he knows the necessity. Compounding this is the disapproval from some of those closest to him, playing into his self-consciousness over his somewhat sinister reputation in the city.

The book also introduces the first gender nonbinary character of the series. Al-Sjease serves as the Oromani family’s household manager, a sweet person who respects their employer’s privacy and offers wisdom when it is most needed. The cast was already reasonably diverse in relation to race, so it’s nice to see Hollow Empire follow that lead along the axis of gender. It also expands its representation of disability. Although Jovan’s compulsiveness and Kalini’s chronic health issues are less prominent than in the previous book, Silastra’s new Warrior-Guilder sports a prosthetic leg. This is nicely underplayed, shown as a part of who she is and not a big deal.

As with the previous book, Hollow Empire deals with lots of weighty subjects. A key plot development centres around Kalina’s forthcoming appointment as Ambassador to the Talafan, a country which offers a patriarchal contrast to the more equitable Silasta. This allows some of the feminist concerns present in the series to be explored in more detail. Issues regarding consent, sexual harassment, and the disenfranchisement of women are all touched on. As Tain and the city seek to learn from past mistakes, issues of reparation are also brought up. There were some very relatable parts around the short memories of institutions and their reluctance to change.

In fact, if there’s one criticism I have of the book, it’s that there was too much going on. There wasn’t the time to dig into all of these themes in a satisfying way. I also felt that some of the sense of place that characterised the first book was missing from this one, sacrificed to the twisty plot. I particularly felt this in the parts that took place outside the city, and therefore couldn’t rely on the weight of the previous book to carry it through.

However, Hollow Empire remains an excellent intrigue. There were red herrings and more than enough twists to hook me in and keep me there from beginning to end. It was absolutely worth an early return to reviewing just for a chance to read it. I have my fingers crossed for another book in the series.