Lord of the Empty Isles by Jules Arbeaux

How long will you hold onto what you've lost?

Interstellar fugitive Idrian Delaciel will die by inches, and Remy Canta will laugh as he goes.

 Five years ago, Idrian ordered a withering - a death curse - cast on Remy's brother that cost him his life, and Remy hasn't been the same since. Now Remy finally has the materials he needs - ash, honey, and a drop of Idrian's blood - to repay the favour. Only when he casts the withering, it rebounds onto him. 

 The implications are unthinkable: that he is fatebound to his brother's killer.

 Even worse, the only way to slow the curse for long enough to find a cure is if Remy joins forces with Idrian and his criminal crew. But when he gets there, Remy learns there are more than just their lives at stake.

 Idrian is the sole provider of life-saving supplies to tens of thousands of innocents, and when he dies, they will die with him. Caught up in perilous heists and a race against time, Remy finds himself truly living for the first time since his brother died.

 Too bad for Remy - the only way to stop a withering is to kill the witherer.

YEAR: 2024
LENGTH: 286 pages
AGE: Adult
GENRE: Science Fiction

Queer Rep Summary: Bi/Pan Secondary Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Secondary Character(s), Ace/Aro Main Character(s).

*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book. 

LORD OF THE EMPTY ISLES begins with a problem caused by Remy’s attempt to seek revenge for the death of his brother. Namely, that when Remy succeeds in cursing his brother's murderer, the curse starts killing him. too. From there, the story transforms into a tale of abusive systems, fighting to live in the face of tyranny, and the way that punishment for punishment's sake wreaks destruction. 

This was excellent! Once I started reading I didn't want to put it down. The cast of characters is big enough to feel numerous, but their roles and personalities are defined in a way that leaves just a few key players that really matter for those readers who have trouble keeping track of so many names.

The system of bonds is very complicated in terms of specifics, but I appreciate that I only really needed to keep track of a few aspects of how they work in order to completely follow the story. For those who want all the geeky explanations and extra detail, each chapter begins with a description from an in-universe text on how all of this works. The text exists because this is visceral but it isn't intuitive, and most people can't see the bonds, so there's a good reason to have this detailed explanation broken into easily understandable sections. It creates a more literal interplay between feelings and relationships, where grief isn't just a hollow in your soul but it can be a rotting tether that hurts, something some people can touch and other people can see. 

Remy has spent the last five years trying to kill Idrian, outlaw and "Lord of the Empty Isles". Idrian gave the orders to whoever put a withering on Remy's brother, this curse that made him waste away in terrible pain until he died. As if that weren't traumatic enough, the tether which was the manifestation of Remy's love for his brother has rotted, leaving Remy wracked with grief and pain. Remy himself is a witherer, and, once he gets a hold of Idrian's blood, he has a way to do to Idrian what Idrian had done to his brother. However, when Remy lays the curse he discovers, to his horror, that he and Idrian must be fatebound, because the curse he just set in motion is killing him too. This is a very effective setup, and it's handled really well. The curse forces some level of physical proximity between them, which makes Remy not just have to spend enough time around Irian to see him as a person, but also to understand how many people he's keeping alive, and the real reason for his outlaw status. 

LORD OF THE EMPTY ISLES takes place in the latter part of the century after a complicated climate/colonization disaster which left the subsequent generations with a tangible fear of overpopulation and squandering resources. The people in charge had, at some point, decided that prison colonies for resource-wasters and people with too many children was the way to ensure that the punishment was a warning. These colonies are the Empty Isles, and the truly cruel and disastrous effects of this system are explored at length when Remy ends up following Idrian to one of the Isles. It forces Remy to finally see the conditions of his world's prison colony when it's a crime to have extra children. There's an extra twist to the cruelty: because the population restrictions are based on class and location, it's possible for someone can have the allowed number, and then retroactively be denied an easement, making their children who already exist into a crime. The completely avoidable result of this is a lot of parents and kids in a prison without enough of anything, let alone the air. 

The thing about an enemies to allies story is that you need a pretty good reason for them to have been enemies, but also there needs to be a really good reason for them to end up as allies. This is especially true when at least one party is so specifically devoted to the other's destruction. Simply having one of them lie to the other can get you a certain part of the way, but, to be actual allies, eventually something needs to be different than it was at the start. One or both of them needs to change in a way that is meaningful enough to call for them to realign their point of view. In LORD OF THE EMPTY ISLES, the presence of the withering means that long after someone's mind has changed they still have to deal with a decision made earlier, in a different state of mind and with different information. It changes the pressure and the momentum of the story. I'm used to (and generally frustrated by) stories which derive tension and anticipation from a character having lied early on and then the story maintaining suspense by putting the confession late enough that it's a betrayal no matter how the information comes out. I didn't feel that way at all here, even though some parts of that usual pattern were in place. The withering is at once a reminder of Remy's earlier mindset and an active danger, and I love how the reveal is handled.  

If you like this you may like:

  • OCEAN'S ECHO by Everina Maxwell
  • PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie

Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, child death, murder, death.

Moderate CW for cursing, classism, alcohol, blood, violence, gun violence, injury detail, medical content, medical trauma, genocide, parental death.

Minor CW for deadnaming, pregnancy, abortion, terminal illness, torture, self harm.

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