Review: Empire of Light by Alex Harrow

Empire of Light by Alex Harrow

5 of 5 stars

I received an eARC from the author in exchange for my honest review.

REP: The main character is a Person of Color (POC), gay, and demisexual. One of his love interests is pan, and the other is pan, polyam, kinky, and a sex worker. They are all three amazing beans that I love with my whole heart. Supporting characters include a badass old lady who’s blind and a WOC, a whole variety of gender identities, sexualities, and other ways of existing, and a run-down spaceship called Shadow (it’s a character and you can’t tell me otherwise).

CWs: There’s a lot. This is a dark book. There are many graphic depictions of violence, several executions (some attempted, some successful, varying from hanging to burning to shooting), and some of this violence is against kids, queer folks, and POC. There are some intense trust violations and several instances of unwanted/non-consensual groping. The main character is a survivor of sexual abuse and there are both flashbacks to that and lots of him dealing with those feelings in the present day. One of the love interests has an intense fear regarding fire (I’m not sure if it would be considered a phobia when this fear is 1000% rational… more like PTSD, I think). The author offers very detailed warnings at the beginning of the book as well, which can I just say I LOVE AND APPRECIATE.

In June of 2018 I participated in a daily Twitter challenge called #LGBTWIP. It was there I met Alex Harrow, who was discussing their 2019 debut and described it as gay Firefly with magic. We ended up becoming friends and Empire of Light jumped to my most anticipated read of 2019 (tied with Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best).

I think this was the first time I was this hyped for a first book in a series. I threw my heart and soul into being excited for this book, which was definitely a little scary. I had moments of worrying: what if I was building it up too much in my head? What if I just didn’t click with Alex’s writing? Was I setting myself up for failure with this book? I am so incredibly grateful that wasn’t the case and I ended up loving it just as much as I had hoped.

Though there are many amazing parts of this book, the crowning jewel was the characters. The three main characters (heretoafter referred to as The Murder Boys*) all stood on their own with compelling backstories and unique voices. While the secondary characters didn’t get as much development (yet! Alex is working on some short origin stories), they still added to the story in important and enjoyable ways.

While this is a darker book (see CWs above), it also had an amazing, dry humor that spoke to my soul. From witty banter to snarky one-liners, I giggled much more than I expected to while reading. Some of my favorite lines included:

“I would ask if you had any last words, but I prefer we cut the theatrics, don’t you?”

“Well, I always wanted to go out with ‘Fuck you,’ but whatever.”

Chapter 8

Ferris blinked at the heap of guns, knives, and spare clips I piled in front of her. Aris gave me a look and a nudge. I sighed, adding a beat-up pocket knife on top of it all.

Chapter 11

A crow perched high on some of the Shadow‘s rusty piping. Its head cocked to one side, then it slowly righted itself again as it stared at me with flat, beady black eyes…

“At least wait ’till I’m dead, damn it… ‘S bad manners. Staring at your food while it’s still twitching.”

Chapter 17

Alex is also the reigning monarch of tropes. They talked about how they incorporated and subverted tropes in a blog post soon after Empire came out. There are several overarching tropes they did well, such as enemies-to-lovers and hurt/comfort. A few smaller tropes we saw in individual scenes were leave-all-your-weapons-at-the-door-wait-one-more (see quote above) and the fake-out-make-out. Alex wielded these to create humor, vulnerability, and relatability in each moment.

I would recommend this book to readers who like:

  • science fiction that’s not set in space
  • dystopians set in post-America
  • stories with some magic thrown in
  • fast-paced stories with lots of action and explosions.

You can pick up your own copy of Empire of Light from the publisher (e-book), Amazon (e-book and paperback), or from Alex themself (signed paperback).

*P.S. I’m sorry I didn’t actually refer to Damian, Aris, and Raeyn as The Murder Boys again in this review, but I call them that often enough that I felt I should leave it in.

Author: SeeOwlRead

They/She. I’m a queer reviewer and librarian.

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