After an unremarkable career Narin finally has the chance of promotion to the hallowed ranks of the Lawbringers – guardians of the Emperor’s laws and bastions for justice in a world of brutal expediency. Joining that honoured body would be the culmination of a lifelong dream, but it couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time. A chance encounter drags Narin into a plot of gods and monsters, spies and assassins, accompanied by a grief-stricken young woman, an old man haunted by the ghosts of his past and an assassin with no past.
On the cusp of an industrial age that threatens the warrior caste’s rule, the Empire of a Hundred Houses awaits civil war between noble factions. Centuries of conquest has made the empire a brittle and bloated monster; constrained by tradition and crying out for change. To save his own life and those of untold thousands Narin must understand the key to it all – Moon’s Artifice, the poison that could destroy an empire.
Tom Lloyd is one of those authors who have been on my radar for a couple of years, but whose work I hadn’t read yet. In Tom’s case because when I discovered him, he was already more than half-way through his previous series, The Twilight Reign, which was five books long. I did pick up the first book in the series, The Stormcaller, in 2011 but it has been languishing in my TBR-pile ever since, due to new and shiny review copies muscling in. So when Gollancz announced his new book, which seemed to be a standalone (in fact it’s not), I knew I had to read it and finally hop on board the Lloyd train.
Moon’s Artifice is a mix of crime, mystery and epic fantasy. While at its heart this is the story of Narin and company figuring out who Irato is and what the poison called Moon’s Artifice is meant to achieve, if they fail it will have far-reaching consequences, not just for those in the Imperial City, but for all the inhabitants of the Empire of a Hundred Houses—that makes it pretty epic in my book. However, while epic in consequences, due to its mystery-solving nature, the book also feels intimate. We spend a lot of time with our main group of protagonists and some of the antagonists and we get a good feel for who they are.
Narin’s group of stalwarts consists of his close friend Enchei, an old war veteran who definitely is more than he seems, Kesh, a young woman drawn into the conflict due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Irato, a victim of Moon’s Artifice who is a stone-cold killer but has no memories of his misdeeds. On the edges of this are Lawbringer Rhe, Narin’s mentor and direct superior, and the other Lawbringers and Investigators of the Palace of Law. They are the cavalry and Rhe helps Narin think things through and figure out the mystery. On the opposite side there are the Goshe and their nefarious goals for Moon’s Artifice. Added into this mix are demons of all sorts and sizes, creatures of which we’re never certain whose side they are on.
I really enjoyed the characters surrounding Narin. Enchei reminded me a bit of Feist’s Nakor. He had the same wilful mysteriousness about him and the same contrary sense of humour. Kesh is wonderful; she’s brave, despite her fears, feisty and resourceful, and above all she’s loyal and very, very human. I liked the interplay between her and Irato. I’d have expected her to never be able to forgive Irato and while she doesn’t out and out forgive him, she does seem to come to an acceptance of him and that who he is now isn’t the same person he was before. Irato posed an interesting question to the reader: is a person inherently, genetically evil or does circumstance – be it due to mental disorders, experiences, abuse or what have you – play into it? Because the Irato we meet is a meek, loyal companion, not a cold-blooded assassin and this is not just a puzzle to the reader, but to Kesh as well.
At the centre of this group is Narin. He’s a good man, devoted to the Lawbringers and their oaths, and he’s a sympathetic main character. He’s neither supernaturally gifted for the task nor unsuited, but you get the sense he is where he is through hard work and dedication. The only thing that detracts from this image is his romantic entanglement with the Lady Kine. While I liked how much he was driven by his love for Kine and his responsibilities to her, at some points his constant drifting off to ponder their situation and his love for her rather got on my nerves as I wanted him to focus on the tasks at hand, because they were pretty dire. Then again, it also felt supremely genuine, to worry about something more in the future instead of what’s right in front of you. Narin is by no means perfect, but he tries to do the best he can by everybody and it makes him infinitely sympathetic.
All of the characters need a stage to play on and Lloyd has built them a wonderfully intricate world to inhabit. I loved the political intricacies of the Empire of a Hundred Houses and their strict House and caste-based society. I also like that the characters run the gamut in terms of appearance, including having red eyes or even wolf-yellow ones. The location and the topography of the Imperial City are also fascinating. It’s been built on the ruins of an older civilisation and it’s been strictly divided into sections by House loyalties. The one element I would have loved to have learned more about are the various demons roaming the city. There are the almost ubiquitous fox demons and the larger and older Apkai and some others who pass through the narrative and I’d love to have learned more about their place in the Empire’s religion and its magic. The society is also a curious mixture of magic and flintlock, with fire power using black powder is firmly in the control of the Astaren, the magicians, whose very name strikes fear into the rest of the world. They are another group I’d loved to read about in greater detail.
Moon’s Artifice was a great read, both fun and compelling. When I started the novel I wasn’t completely clear on whether the book was a standalone or not, but I was really hoping there would be more the closer I got to the end. Lo and behold, I read that there will be another book called Old Man’s Ghosts. Despite there being a follow up in the works, Moon’s Artifice stands alone beautifully as its plot and narrative arc are fully resolved by the ending of the book. While there are some loose ends left, there aren’t so many or such big ones that it makes the ending unsatisfactory. I really enjoyed Moon’s Artifice tremendously and I think it’s a great entry point for new Tom Lloyd readers and well as a satisfying new novel for existing fans.