Darien: Empire of Salt by CF Iggulden
So Darien, Empire of Salt is the opening salvo to this high-fantasy trilogy by CF Iggulden, [Conn F Iggulden also happens to be one of my all-time favourite historical fiction authors]. After his books on Genghis Khan and Julius Ceaser (Both towering feats of story-telling, of spell binding imagination that brings alive historical stories drenched in blood and myths!) I was super excited that he turned his hands, to writing a full-on fantasy novel, without the trappings of actual history weighing down on the story. Unfettered imagination and brilliant writing chops, would make this a delectable affair, thought I. and naturally, the expectations were sky-high.
The premise for Darien, an empire at the “weary end of a golden age” was a cracker. Basically, it sets the ground for explosive happenings within the capital city of Darien – where a regicide is being planned and five strangers converge, their fates colliding with each other’s to write a new chapter for the Empire. A plot to kill the king? Political feuds? Backstabbing? Magic! Hell, count me in, thought I. The expectations were now stratospheric. Outer edges of moon and all that.
Conn begins the story by giving us the drop on each of these ‘strangers’ – their backstory, their motivations and what drives them to their ‘fate’ within the city of Darien. This was the most interesting part of the story, personally for me. Elias Post, the hunter – makes a deal with the devil [ a power hungry General Justan who wants to right the wrongs meted out to the people of Darien by bringing in winds of change, a revolution or a military coup to overthrow the absolute tyrannical rule of the ‘Royal’ family ] to save his family and is forced into a contract, the consequences of which could be disastrous. He is brought in by General’s right hand man, a young soldier Vic Deeds, who is better than the devil, when it comes to the guns and is assigned to keep an eye of Elias, to ensure he goes through with the contract. Now Elias was an easy character to follow, to root for. His family’ life is at stake and his ‘knack’ (magical ability) was fascinating, making him the perfect ‘assassin’ or weapon in the wrong hands. But Elias thinks for himself and a multi-layered personality. Vic, on the other hand, is a soldier and doesn’t think beyond saving his own skin. A fairly grey character with hidden motives but I just couldn’t get to like him.
The set of Tellius, an old retired soldier who wants to get back at the ‘arrogant swordmasters inside the city’ discovers a new urchin, who is mute but who might become his greatest student ever. Arthur, the boy who can learn anything within a few seconds of having observed it, however hides a greater secret than Telius can even fathom. I liked Arthur a lot. So much pain, so much hidden behind those silent gaze – and his secret is a mindblowing twist on the story plot. Telius, on the other hand – comes across as just a grumpy old man seeking to better his own fortunes – wasn’t my favourites. There are hints of a complex past, of war and soldiering with a secret sect but Conn doesn’t expound on these, choosing to focus on the tumultuous events of a military coup in the present.
The last set of two intertwined fates, that of Thee – a gambler and Nancy, a young girl down on her luck, started off as the best possible tale. That of an adventure, deep into the hearts of a desert, in search of magical artefacts and treasures. Thee – again an unscrupulous character out to just make good on his own fortunes, wants to use Nancy for the unique gifts she brings in – her ability to suck magic out of artefacts into herself. Nancy, comes across as a troubled soul, wanting to just lead a respectable life and coming to terms with the powers awakening inside her. Again, sadly these two characters didn’t really shine for me much.
Conn is a master of his craft – and the plot keeps unfolding at relentless pace. There is tremendous world building hints thrown out – very intriguing and deep but Conn again chooses to just tease the reader with these being just hints. The Empire of Salt, an erstwhile sprawling empire with its royal families each holding a family heirloom of magic to protect the city of Darien, seems to have some fairly interesting roots, histories. There’s magic aplenty – and Conn keeps these mysterious. Monstrous sorcery hidden deep in a tomb, magical weapons that will keep empires alive and more. There are battles, epic and huge in scale with the whole revolution brewing, skilfully wrought out alive on the pages by Conn that will keep you hooked and in between all the politicking and changing loyalties, there are some genuinely poignant moments, like the fate of Elias Post and his girls or the story of Arthur. I would have loved to see more of the city of Darien, the people, the culture and the practices followed that makes the Empire of Salt what it is. However, we are driven straight into the heart of the revolution as soon as we pass through the gates and I thought this was a shame.
Overall, I think it is a fairly good start to a new series by Conn but the magic and the thrill of reading the Emperor or the Conqueror series was definitely missing. Mainly because I couldn’t get behind and really like any of the multi POV’s in the book. But it’s epic fantasy in its purest form. The fate of an empire hanging in balance as individuals grow into their own destinies – An explosive clash of fortunes involving cunning schemes, political feuds that brings out raging fires, swordplay and gunshots sealing their fate along with city of Darien. A one-time read but don’t go in expecting the same charm of Julius Cesaer or the brutal ferocity of Genghis Khan.