The Riyria Revelations remains one of my favorite popcorn fantasy series. They're not perfect books with their simplistic good and evil morality as well as somewhat generic fantasy setting but they're fun. The characters are likable, the dialogue is sharp, and the world-building (while not terribly original) is consistent as well as used intelligently. If I were to describe it, I'd probably say it's what would happen if you combined Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series with some of the more serious Discworld books.
The premise of the books is Hadrian and Royce are two good-natured thieves, one a warrior while the other being an assassin, who only rarely get a chance to rob bad guys. In the last book, they successfully prevented the assassination of a newly crowned king as well as accidentally got a heroic farm girl crowned empress of the continent.
Rise of Empire begins with Hadrian having decided he's well and truly sick of being a thief. Wanting to retire and take up a more honest trade, Royce is severely annoyed as he doesn't believe such a thing exists. Hadrian has been affected by the amount of good they accomplished while Royce is convinced it was a bad decision to do the right thing as he (correctly) believes it's habit forming. Hadrian gets his chance to do something great, though, when Arista the Princess of Melengar decides she needs the thieves to help her protect her kingdom from annexation.
Things aren't going well for the continent as Thrace, the aforementioned heroic peasant girl, has been reduced to a catatonic state by her experiences in the previous book. Propped up as the Empress solely to serve as a figurehead, the newly-renamed Empress Modina is used to justify wars of conquest as well as murderous purges of elves. Arista's homeland is one of the few nations choosing to resist the new empire but it cannot hope to stand against the might of the corrupt conquest-hungry Empire.
While Hadrian and Royce are the stars of the book, I enjoyed the sections of the book relating to Princess Arista and Empress Modina most (or more precisely, the latter's secretary). Princess Arista has been proclaimed a witch by the mostly magic-less world and this has resulted in her becoming hated throughout the continent. Empress Modina, by contrast, has a story arc related to slowly regaining her sanity while being unwittingly the center of an evil conspiracy.
The villains are somewhat one-dimensional but delightfully greedy and self-absorbed. I'm particularly fond of Regent Saldur and Merrick. Saldur is a religious hypocrite, schemer, and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is while Merrick is probably the smartest thief alive. Merrick has much more honor than Saldur and his cronies, which isn't saying much, but is compelled by a belief in the Empire to help them anyway (as well as a generous reward). I love the little power games, great and small, going on throughout these books.
The first half of the book, which is a compilation of the novels Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm, deals with a lot of extremely entertaining scenes as we watch the Empire expand its dominions. The Emerald Storm was less enjoyable as it dealt with a somewhat uncomfortably Darkest Africa stereotype of a goblin-cultured race of humans but still extremely well-written. My favorites parts of the book are a visit to the only university left on the continent as well as a civil uprising against the Empire's tyranny.
In conclusion, this entry into Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria series is highly entertaining. Those who prefer more edgy or original setting elements won't be impressed but it's impressive comic timing as well as fun characters more than make up for it. This volume maintains the same level of excellence as the previous ones and leads directly into the finale Heir of Novron.