The Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson
Trigger Warning: Assault, Child Abuse, PTSD, racism
Red Sparkle Stone is an orphan, a prior slave and a foundling, and is about to be adopted into the royal family. When her adoption is canceled at the very last minute, Red is thrown into a mix of feelings—of rejection, of turmoil, of the idea that her found family doesn’t love or want her, and is determined to regain the trust of her country so she can return to her family. So she decides to join the Royal Guard—the only woman to make the attempt.
But something isn’t right in the Royal Guard. Something is wrong, and Red suspects a traitor in those dedicated to protect the Empress.
And she must find them.
ADD THIS TO YOUR TBRS IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY BECAUSE OMFG IT’S GOOD
I was a little wary of a new, standalone addition to the Fire and Thorns trilogy, mainly because despite a rocky start (I originally DNF’d The Girl of Fire and Thorns before returning a couple years later and loving it) I really, really love this trilogy.
And this book is so. fucking. good.
In an entirely different way, but one that complements the original trilogy. It’s about 10 years after the end of the trilogy, and so it was weird to see Elisa as a grown woman and well into her own powers of being an empress—and as a mother, stepmother and foster mother. And seeing Horatio as foster parent was wonderful too. He was such a great dad.
“And you.” I turn my fury on Aldo. “Stop acting like you’ve taken a sword to the chest every time someone calls you a girl. It’s not an insult. Girls are not cockroaches or rats or horse dung. We are people, and it’s perfectly find to be one of us, so stop.”
Red’s arrival at the Royal Guard, and her training with the male recruits, felt so…I don’t know how to say it. There were a lot of memories that this brought up for me, as someone who went through military training surrounded by men (there were other women in my platoon as well, but I was the only woman in my squad).
The idea that you are only accepted when you bring something to the table, that you add value—but only when you add value as something better than the men—was particularly painful, and made me wonder what would have happened if Red was as capable as say, Iván, who had a lot of enthusiasm but not much coordination.
However, Red survives and thrives and makes alliances, not just because she’s talented, but because that talent and skill is due to years of training, and because of her own grit and resilience.
I did love that she recognizes why she had an innate body awareness, and why the boys lacked that awareness, and how she has the advantage in some areas precisely because of how she had been disadvantaged—when it came to dealing with hardships, lack of sleep, lack of food, and learning swordplay. Many of her fellow recruits were well-born younger noblemen who had not dealt with hardship or had to be hyper-aware of their own bodies, or be cognizant of the space they take up, because there has always been space for them.
Some of them can’t do the forms well, not because they’re inherently clumsy, but because they’ve never had to control themselves or consider their blundering bodies in relation to someone else’s space. The world has always made space for them. Maybe this is a thing that only happens to boys.
Anywho, in addition to capturing many of the feels of Tamora Pierce and Alex Liddell, whose books tend to feature women in roles traditionally assigned to men, this was a book about finding and fighting for your family. And about trauma—not the overcoming of trauma, but the acceptance that you were affected by something horrible and learning to live with it.
The trauma I’m talking about specifically is childhood trauma, particularly that of kidnapping and abuse. Despite her comfortable royal trappings, Red suffered horribly after her mother was murdered, and the scars of slavery stay with her and affect how she perceives the people around her.
The only thing that I wanted more of in this book were more female friendships. Red is surrounded by male characters throughout the entire book, as Elisa leaves in the beginning to have a baby in a more medically-advanced part of the country, and there were only a couple other women in the book. However, there is definitely a potential for female friendship there, and I loved that the book showed that there are other kinds of strength and weapons women carry that men overlook.
“Rosario always says the sins of the father shall be visited upon the children, from generation to generation.”
And this book also deals with generational trauma—from the prejudice Red faces because of her mixed heritage (so many microaggressions) to the overarching generational trauma of warfare and systems of oppression to a more pinpointed familial trauma. Of how the children of former traitors also suffer for their parents’ crimes, no matter how they prove themselves. Of how children of the “enemy” can still be perceived of the enemy instead of a fellow citizen.
So why did I rate this book so highly if all I talked about was trauma, trauma, trauma and nothing really about plot?
Because this book was truly like falling into a warm hug.
At times it squeezed too tight, but other times it was like stepping back into a comfortable embrace from a loved-one I hadn’t seen in a long time.
And because Red is incredible, and because the plot was fantastic and twisty and delicious.
And I will mention very little of the plot because aside from the many training montages, anything extra that I add is going to be a spoiler.
I received this ARC from Edelweiss for an honest review
Empire of Dreams released from Greenwillow Books April 7, 2020.