Rachel Reviews… 'Poisoned Empire' by Elyse Thomson
Note: Out of respect to readers who have not yet had the chance to delve into this book, I have kept this review spoiler-free. All details on character and plot mentioned in this review do not go beyond what a reader will already know from the blurb on the back of the book.
I love being an editor. Did I ever mention that? One of my favourite things about editing is that I get to read some truly cracking books before they are released to the rest of the world. Books like this one, for example.
‘Poisoned Empire’ is the first of a romantic fantasy series by Elyse Thomson, and it is packed full of fun, action and occasional steamy scenes which are most DEFINITELY too saucy for reading in public (yes, I am a delicate little flower who blushes at the mention of pert bottoms). Are you a fan of Sarah J Maas? Well strap in, because this series is along those lines, but better.
About the Book
Here’s the blurb:
Black-marketeer Selene has poison magic and the cynicism to match. When she and genius metals mage Iliana are arrested by the same scheming, noble fathers who tossed them out at birth, they suspect apologies won’t be forthcoming. Forced to either impersonate their half-sisters or die, the friends agree to be stuffed into fancy dresses, packed off to the capital, and thrust into the perilous, glittering world of the imperial court.
Traitors lurk in Prince Belisarius’ court, and only his loyal strategos Marduk is above suspicion. As noble-born villains siphon away the souls of their daughters to magnify their magic in secret, Belisarius plots to expose them all—by inviting every noblewoman in the empire to compete for his hand in marriage. But two infuriating imposters in attendance quickly become his bane.
When the friends are discovered, they expect imprisonment—not a deal. Vast riches are on offer if Selene poses as fiancée to the handsome prince while Iliana simpers for the towering strategos—a ploy to lure traitorous enemies to the capital. Yet even as they help secure the throne, false affections flirt with real passions, and Selene and Iliana are convinced they’ll either lose their hearts… or their heads.
About the Author
Elyse Thomson is the pen-name of an author, bookbinder and self-proclaimed hermit residing in Canada's capital. She writes escapist fantasy with daring heroines, magical mayhem, swoon-worthy romance and court intrigue. Having graduated from University of Toronto with a Bachelors in History and Classics, she is delighted to bring her love of all things ancient to her work. When not writing, she's restoring antiquarian books for a select group of clients, playing Dragon Age, or snuggling up with either her husband or her neurotic terrier, Freya.
I have a confession to make: I sometimes balk a bit when asked to edit fantasy novels. It’s a classic case of, “really, it’s not you, it’s me.” When people send me fantasy I usually tell them the truth; that I’m not necessarily going to be their best choice for this book, and they should look for someone else who is more experienced with the genre. Give me historical, mystery or a good comedy any day, but my logical brain tends to stall a bit over fantasy; ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is about my limit, and even then there are chunks of that series where I have only a vague gist of what’s going on. While I enjoy some fantasy, such as ‘Game of Thrones’ which has heavy historical influences rather than creating a complete world of its own, the higher stuff can often leave me a bit lost.
I think it’s because so much of it is written on the assumption that the reader already understands the common elements found in the genre. I'm a poor little mug who thinks that ‘orbs’ are little plants that you chuck in your dinner to make it taste less like cardboard. I don't stand a chance the minute fae and orcs and mages start running around shouting Elvish incantations and firing energy bolts at each other. These sorts of books may as well be written in pure Martian for all the sense they make to me.
“Why is all this relevant to this review?” I hear you ask. Because, dear reader, I need you to know what a big deal it is that I not only agreed to edit this book, but I got the author to promise to use me as her editor, not just for the rest of the series, but for pretty much everything she publishes for the rest of her life. She’s stuck with me now. Hahahahaha.
Why? BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME, that’s why.
When ‘Poisoned Empire’ dropped into my email inbox, I knew straight away that I couldn’t let it go. It was gripping from the first chapter, and by the time I’d finished the second I was hooked. There was no way I was letting anyone else be the editor on this book, or any of the others in the series. It’s mine! MY PRECIOUS!!! (See? I can do fantasy.)
‘Poisoned Empire’ is one of those rare and precious books accessible for all levels of fantasy reader to enjoy. Like ‘Game of Thrones’, the setting is based on a real-world historical time period with a magic system layered on top, meaning that the reader doesn’t have to start from scratch when conjuring up the world in their mind. Unlike many historical fantasy series, however, this setting is based on the Byzantine Empire rather than the classically cold castles of Medieval England. It made a refreshing change, giving the book’s world a distinctive setting of its own while still being familiar enough to ‘our’ world to avoid alienating those who are new to the fantasy scene.
The book started with some beautifully drawn maps and better still, a glossary of terms so that the fantastically-challenged such as myself could get a handle on the titles and magical references before getting stuck into the story. If I came across a character whose title I couldn’t mentally place, I could just flick back to the glossary to check. The huge advantage of this was that the author didn’t have to keep stopping to explain every little thing for the benefit of the fantasy-illiterate. If it wasn’t self-explanatory in the text, you could find it in the glossary, allowing newbies to the fantasy world to follow what was going on without killing the pace and frustrating the more experienced fantasy readers. What a great idea.
A note about the cover: I love the elegance and simplicity of it. At first glance it looks like a fairly generic fantasy cover, with the crown and the purple and gold patterns in the background. However, it’s far cleverer than that; everything on the cover has meaning, from the shape of the crown to the white flowers to the mosaic patterns in the background. You’ll love the cover before you’ve started reading, but I promise you’ll love it even more by the time you’ve finished. I know I did.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy Elyse Thomson’s writing so much is because her writing style is so similar to my own. Reading her books feels like home. The writing style is so natural, it almost disappears in your consciousness- the action, settings, characters, all play out in my head as though I’m watching a movie rather than reading a book. And isn’t that exactly what we’re all looking for in a good book? To be so swept away that you forget you’re reading, because you feel like you’re actually living the story? It’s the dictionary definition of ‘great escapism’ (and if it’s not, it should be).
As the book is multi-POV, the reader gets a great insight into each character’s thoughts and motivations. The literary world can be a bit divided on multi-POV narratives- I’m personally a big fan of them- but I’ll argue that when they’re done right, no other narrative style can match them for developing complexity of character and depth. Of course, each reader is entitled to their own opinion, but in my view past tense, close third person, multi-POV narratives are the ones I enjoy most. That’s why I write them, and I can safely say that if you like the writing style I use (why else would you be here on my website?), you will LOVE Elyse Thomson.
What I really love about this book in particular is that each character POV has its own distinctive voice. As an editor, I have a test by which I judge multi-POV books, and it works for every book from George RR Martin to Sarah J Maas:
Read enough of the book where you feel you’ve got a handle on who the characters are and what their character voices sound like.
Flip forward. Open the book anywhere you haven’t yet read. Any page, any paragraph. Pick a bit with no character names in it, ideally, so you don’t have any clues.
You should be able to tell which character’s POV the author is writing in.
Repeat at least three times.
If you can correctly identify which character POV you’re in each time, the author has probably done a great job.
I did the test with this book. Several times. It passed with flying colours, which is a very impressive feat!
I’ll be careful not to give away any spoilers here, don’t worry, as there are plenty of twists you won’t want me to ruin for you!
I’ll start by saying that the plot is very well paced, which is not always an easy thing to accomplish for a fantasy novel as they are so often bogged down with world building. The story never felt sluggish or like the author was info-dumping, with key information dripped through the text rather than force fed to the reader in big unpalatable lumps. This gradual world building allowed the reader to build up an image of the setting without losing the thread of the plot, which was great.
The plot is built around several interwoven character stories, the main ones being Selene (the poison mage), Belisarius (the crown prince), Iliana (the metals mage) and Marduk (the prince’s ‘strategos’ or military leader). I’ll get into the romances and characters later, but I will say how much I like the fact that each subplot combines to form this rich tapestry of a story. All of those threads came together satisfyingly at the end, wrapping up each subplot while still leaving hints of questions to be addressed in the next book. It was cleverly done, and without giving too much away, I love the fact that those characters I spent the book rooting for, as well as the events of this story, are going to be recurring features of further books too.
What a great range of characters I had to choose from! I’ll just focus on the main ones for now, otherwise I could go on all night (although special mention to my favourite mean girl Zoe Emerald, and also to the griffin who is an absolute legend).
Before I begin properly on characters, I’d like to just say a quick hallelujah to the author for her NAMING skills. So often in fantasy I find myself struggling with names that I can’t get my head around because it looks as though the author closed their eyes and sat on the keyboard. As a neurodivergent person, I find this very difficult- to me, words are a very sensory thing, and each name has a sound, a taste, a colour and sometimes even a smell. The name Isabelle, for example, is silver and light aqua blue, smells of fresh roses and tastes of elderflower. It sounds a bit odd to neurotypical people I’m sure, but I know I’m far from the only neurodivergent person who visualises certain words and names like this. I don’t mind unfamiliar, unusual or ethnic names- I’ll usually look them up on Google to check I’m pronouncing them correctly in my head, and then I’m good to go. Give me a made-up, keyboard-mash name I can’t hear in my head, though, and the whole thing jars.
The other problem many fantasy novels have is too many characters with very similar names. George RR Martin, I’m looking at you. Get in the sea, and take Aegon / Aemon / Aeron / Aerys / Viserys / Visnya / Viseryon / Daemon / Daeron / Danerys and their friends with you. And that’s before we even get into surnames and family titles.
The naming of the characters in Poisoned Empire, though, is a stroke of genius. Rather than being bombarded with alphabet soup and expected to remember it all, Thomson instead offers us characters named after precious stones. If a character’s surname is ‘Sapphire’, they rule over the Sapphire province, their eyes and coat of arms will be sapphire blue, and their magic will (most likely) be the command of water. If their surname is ‘Emerald’, they will command the Emerald province, their eyes and signature colour will be emerald green, and their magic will be earth-based. Get the idea? I certainly did, and quickly, too. It made life so much easier. One mention of a character’s eye colour, and I knew which family they belonged to, where they were from and what kind of magic they were expected to possess without a second thought. No need for fancy heraldry or complicated family trees, and no need to take a break from a good bit of the story by having to look up who’s who. Now that’s the best kind of magic in my eyes!
On to the characters themselves. Let’s start with poisons mage Selene. I loved Selene’s feisty cynicism. She was delightfully wicked from the start, and although she became more sympathetic as the story progressed, she never lost that fabulous sassiness. She contrasted well with the sweet and lovely Iliana, talented metals mage, who had plenty enough sass of her own when provoked. Selene was cunning and manipulative where Iliana was straightforward and genuine. They say opposites attract, and Selene and Iliana were a great compliment to each other.
Belisarius is a far more serious character, but he was no less interesting to follow and balanced really well against Selene’s mischievous chaos. I won’t say any more for fear of giving spoilers, but while he wasn’t really my ‘type’ in terms of romantic heroes (too grumpy for my sunshine-loving personality), I know a LOT of women who would swoon over a character like Beli. Many a saucy fanfic will be written about this dude, I’m sure of it. Brace yourself for the fan art, too- it won’t be for the faint hearted!
Speaking of swoon-worthy characters. I spent most of this book trying to work out whether I had more of a crush on Marduk or Iliana. Their romance was exactly the sort of thing I go for; sweet, wholesome and full of the feels. That’s the great thing about a book like this. The multi-POV approach meant that you got the double-bonus of parallel love stories, and they’re so very different that there’s bound to be something to your tastes. I loved Iliana and Marduk, who were so beautifully made for each other they could’ve popped straight out of a Disney film. That is, if Disney ever decided to go down the steamy adult line (I won’t hold my breath).
This novel was like Game of Thrones meets ACOTAR, but with a lot more fun, more engaging characters and a better writing style (in this humble editor’s opinion). I couldn’t get enough of it, and luckily I don’t have to as it’s the first in a series. What more could you ask for?
To find out more about 'Poisoned Empire' and the Mages of Oblivion Series, please click here or on the button below.
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Disclaimer: Please note that I never accept money or any other type of payment in exchange for reviews, and always buy the books myself unless stated otherwise. I never publicly post any reviews for books I’ve rated lower than 4*, as not every book is for everyone and I believe it’s unfair to damage a hardworking author’s reputation over something that comes down to personal preference. This way, although my ratings may appear to average out high, you know that they always reflect my honest opinion.