Audiobook Review: The Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson

Even though Red Sparkle Stone is a foundling orphan with an odd name and a veiled past, she’s about to be adopted into the royal family—by Empress Elisa herself. Sixteen-year-old Red can hardly believe her luck. Then, in a stunning political masterstroke, the empress’s greatest rival blocks the adoption, and Red is left with no family and no future.

Grieving and lost, but determined to find her place, Red hatches a daring plan: she will prove herself as a recruit for the world’s most elite fighting force, the legendary Royal Guard—something no woman has done before. But it’s no coincidence that someone wanted her to fail as a princess, someone whose shadowy agenda puts everything she loves at risk. As danger closes in, it will be up to Red and her new friends—and maybe some new enemies—to save the empire. If they can survive recruitment year.

I was so so excited when this book was announced because Girl of Fire and Thorns is one of my favorite YA trilogies from the earliest days of my blogging and I have a lot of nostalgia associated with it. But I did lose track of it among my numerous ARCs, other new releases and a reading slump, but I’m glad that I finally got around to it. 

I can’t tell you how happy I was to be back in this world. The author does mention in an interview that this can be read as a standalone but I truly can’t comment on that, because my experience is completely tied up in the knowledge I come with while starting the book. It’s been almost three years, but I immediately felt familiar and could recollect all the important things that had happened in the trilogy as well as the important characters, so that I dove head first into this new story. I thought the author did a great job showing us how much and how little the world/court has changed over the years, giving us a sense of what happens after a rebellion ends and the rulers take major decisions. 

Maybe because this is a standalone, I felt like it had lesser stakes (though it does get serious eventually) and that’s why it didn’t give me enough tension filled moments which I naturally expected. Most of the plot is the training of the Royal Guard which has some great scenes, but it felt very much like a slice of life story rather than a fantasy for a huge part of it. We also get two different timelines, with the past timeline recounting the history of the main character before we met her in The Bitter Kingdom, and while it was very helpful in giving us a better understanding of the character, I felt that it really created a disconnect and took attention away from the much more interesting present timeline. 

I only remember Red as the little girl Elisa saved in the finale, and it was exciting to see more of her story. She has a lot of trauma from her childhood and I appreciated knowing that the ptsd representation in the book is modeled after the author’s own personal experiences. Red’s startle reflex and her trust issues are a major part of her as a person and they are due to her past, but she is also protective of those she loves and is such a genuine human being who wants to do good. Even when she is competing with the other recruits for her position in the Guard, she treats everyone well despite getting pushback and even helps them all in their training because she believes in them. I really liked her as a character and I thought the author depicted the nuances of her having a certain amount of privilege while also being surrounded by people who are prejudiced against her, in a very interesting manner. 

I think the best part of the book are the various relationships Red has or forms with the various side characters. Though we get most amount of page time with Ivan, I also really loved the characters of Aldo, Pedrón, the Arturos, Itzal, Valentino and many of the other recruits. The trust they all develop between each other is beautiful to watch and its only because of them that the very easy and rushed climax even works, though not entirely convincingly. And it was such a joy to meet my favorite couple Elisa and Hector again along with the glimpses we get of Mara and Rosario. 

I felt that the themes the author dealt with in this book were very thoughtful. The main one is obviously about a woman trying to make it in an all male profession, and it comes with the usual comments about a beautiful woman being a distraction or not being strong enough to be a guard and complete the training. But through Red, we see how competence will be rewarded eventually but the author also ensures that Red stands her ground most of the times, and doesn’t let anyone get away with making misogynistic and sexist comments. The other main theme is trust – how much trust and respect plays a main role when a group of people have to work together, despite their class differences or other prejudices. 

But the one that really left an impression on me was about countries and treaties and people – how the leaders of enemy countries might come to a compromise for the sake of the betterment of their people, but it’s not easy to change the minds of the people whose minds are full of prejudice against each other. And that sometimes, the leaders just have to model inclusive behavior and keep at it, with the hope that people will realize the futility of being at odds in the long term.

To conclude, I think this is a fun addition to the original trilogy but I definitely enjoyed it more because of my love for the world. It has good characters and great friendships and I’m actually happy that none turned into a romance. You should definitely check it out if you love Girl of Fire and Thorns like me, and if you haven’t read the trilogy, please pick it up immediately because it’s absolutely wonderful. 

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