We arrive at the end of things in Richard Swan’s Empire of the Fallen, the concluding volume in The Art of War trilogy (Reclamation and The Ascendancy War). The die have been cast. Foes have turned to friends and the downtrodden are in the ascendancy. There is nothing for it but to gather the fleet, load your soldiers into drop pods and mass landers, light the afterburners, and charge. The sweeping space battles are just as good as the personal ones in this excellent ending to a wonderful space opera trilogy that will satisfy fans of The Expanse like few other books.
In Empire of the Fallen, we return to a range of familiar of points of view. Lyra is out of her head and back into the espionage meatgrinder—this time further undercover and in far more danger than she ever thought possible. Vondur has been returned to the seat of his goliath war machine, and while the scars to his body are readily and easily healed, those caused to his mind are much harder to shift. Yano has been put up in one of the most expensive apartments in the galaxy, whiling away his days in ultimate luxury–but he’s smart enough to know he’s being buttered up. The president is about to ask him for something, and he is highly unlikely to like it.
Meanwhile, Gia is struggling with her celebrity status. The hero everyone wants to interview at the moment, and the rich privileged kid with nothing to do and nobody to talk to but the VR addicts of the virtual world in her new IHD. She’s rudderless and needs help. An old friend comes to her rescue. Kind of.
At the head of the UN, Andrea’s presidency has turned into a dictatorship. She can see what needs to be done, and dealing with the incredibly frustrating gears of democracy has been put to the side as emergency powers allow her to save the galaxy. The pressure builds as her alliances crumble alongside her forces in the face of the invading Kaygryn Empire, the guerilla warfare tactics of the emboldened Kaygyrn Federation, and mounting multi-species political anger at her approach to saving everyone.
The Empire of the Fallen is essentially one long meat grinder battle as the main dish, served with a large side of espionage and counter-terrorism, and followed with the slow decay of the characters we love as the UN’s fascade of moral superiority rots away in the face of annihilation. The allegory for the West’s behaviour in modern politics and conflicts can be seen most strongly in this book of all three in The Art of War, as the worst parts of our society are put on display and extrapolated out. And I love it.
One of the aspects in Empire of the Fallen that I enjoyed the most was the impact of the IHD on Gia and Vondur. This was a really interesting look into our potential future of information saturation, and probably a natural next step to things like Elon Musk’s Neuralink product. The use of Gia’s perspective to really flesh out the impact of online and social media addiction on people who have not previously had access to IHDs, and also what human society has become due to that addiction was a dark and dirty look into the future. Vondur’s deprivation impacts as he is cut off from both the online and medical impacts of the IHD (which can both provide online access, and alter brain chemistry to change moods, cut off pain, provide extended hyperfocus, slow time perception, etc) is a fascinating look at the other side of the coin. While cyberpunk books like Altered Carbon and Neon Leviathan probably delve a lot further into the topic, I found Swan’s viewpoint on future implanted connectivity engaging and not overpowering of the space opera aspect. Because, let’s be honest, there is a big part of us here, in book three, for the space opera battles and big political betrayals.
Once again, Swan showcases his ability to write excellently paced and choreographed action scenes in Empire of the Fallen. As there is so much action in the book–it’s a breathless race of heightening stakes from cover to cover–this is an important note. While I read this book back-to-back with books one and two, and may have suffered a little bit of universe-weariness at times, there was never a point where I felt bogged down in his writing.
My one concern about the book (and I’ll do my best to voice this without giving it away) was one of the character arcs had a development that felt too convenient. It was the one moment in three entire books where I sat back and just moaned in disappointment. This, however, turned out to be an enjoyable, if somewhat heavy-handed feint by the author that actually helps keep the world open to more books beyond the end of this trilogy. However, if I was five starring the first two books and nearly threw the toys out of the pram at that moment, then I wonder if somebody less invested would put the book down at that point and miss out on what is an absolutely cracking ending that grimdark fans are going to really enjoy.
Empire of the Fallen is an excellent end to a wonderful trilogy. Its explosive release of the building pressure through sweeping space and planetary battles matched with the moral downfall of the UN and the characters we’ve engaged in so much over the last two books make this a brilliant read for space opera fans. It is the end cap on a series that showcases the kind of multi-layered book and series story arcs that Swan is capable of, and why his debut fantasy series (The Justice of Kings, and The Tyranny of Faith) has been raved about.