When I heard that Conn Iggulden – under the guise of C.F.F Iggulden – was writing a series of fantasy novels, I was intrigued. I’ve been a fan of his since I picked up Emperor: The Gates of Rome as a teenager, and so, with a sense of excitement and slightly heightened expectations, I got stuck into Darien: Empire of Salt.
Darien: Empire of Salt is the first in a planned series of fantasy novels by the acclaimed critically historical fiction author. It tells the story of six extraordinary people who live in or near the city of Darien – an ancient and corrupt city ruled by a puppet monarchy under the control of twelve powerful families – as they become embroiled in a plot to murder the king and seize power.
Conn Iggulden’s writing style has always possessed the ability to paint wonderful images in my head, and this book was no exception. This is almost a prerequisite to success in fantasy where you are often being introduced to new worlds and settings. The best fantasy novels immerse you in this world and make you feel as if it is real, and mostly, this book achieves that. The city of Darien itself felt familiar from both his Emperor and Wars of Roses series, and also other fantasy novels, such as Game of Thrones, with a handful of powerful families vying for control in the shadows. I enjoyed reading about the city as a backdrop, and liked the blend of early-modern technology and ancient magic that it had, though it would have been nice to see more of the twelve families and see their politicking. Hopefully this is something we see more of in the sequels. My only real criticism of the world-build however, was the occasional real-world references that slipped into the story. Flippant comments to Jesus or Julius Caesar jarred my immersion in the setting. Initially, I wondered if, perhaps, the world was set on earth in an alternate reality, but there wasn’t any evidence for this and so quickly gave up on this theory. Perhaps I am wrong. Who knows.
The story itself is told from the point of view of the six main characters with each chapter being from a different point of view. Though, quite wisely in my opinion, these characters are actual split into three pairs: Elias and Deeds, Nancy and Daw, Tellius and Arthur. This makes the plot relatively easy to follow as we are really following three story arcs, even though we have six points of view. It’s a tried and tested way of writing, both in fantasy and other genres, and it works well here. In particular, I enjoyed the moments were the characters plots took them past another groups, even if they just get a quick glance of another major character and it doesn’t affect their plot arc in any way. It’s only a small thing, and it only occurred a few times, but it felt like finding an Easter Egg or spotting a secret. Naturally, as with all groups of people, you have some you prefer over others. My favourite character was Elias, the small-town hunter who just wanted a quiet life. Perhaps this is because he is the first character we are introduced to, and we get to spend the most time with, but he is a certified bad-ass, despite the appearance of being a simple man caught up in the scheming of the rich and powerful. Daw and Arthur, with the latter’s plot ending in quite the twist, were also favourites of mine. On the other hand, I found it harder to get attached to Deeds – though I don’t think he is meant to be liked – and Tellius – who comes across as little more than grumpy old man.
Overall, it is a good, solid entry to the world of fantasy writing. It might have lacked the magic of some of Conn’s other books, in my opinion at least, but I would certainly still recommend it and look forward to the next book in the series, Shiang.