Evil empires in fantasy fiction are kind of a dime a dozen. While they do make for interesting vehicles through which to tell exciting stories, showcase entire fantastic worlds, and allow the heroes to be heroic by fighting hordes of depraved or inhuman foes, on the whole, there isn’t much to most of them. They conquer stuff, destroy the cute, pastoral villages and oddly democratic monarchies where our heroes come from, and are usually run by evil wizards or dragons or somesuch. Also, outside of overwhelming numbers and firepower, or the occasional clever general or two, they tend to be pretty poorly run. Once people start joining forces against them or developing superweapons, the wars start to turn against them pretty quickly. Not to mention, they don’t usually have much in the way of goals except for destroying the world or turning it into some sort of insane evil factory. It takes believable, human sorts of evil to take the actions of a villainous empire personally, which is why I so detest the Wasp Empire from the fantasy series Shadows of the Apt.
The Wasp Empire began as a race called Wasp kinden (every race in the world is human, but has some “kinden,” a totemic insect spirit that gives them power), and were little more than warring barbarian tribes for most of history. It was only three generations back from the beginning of the story that a Wasp named Alvric united the tribes into a single nation, and his son Alvdan turned that nation into a fully conquering empire. Since then, the Wasps have adapted every form of modern technology and began sweeping across the surrounding nations, conquering everything in their path. Besides their technology, the Wasps have two incredibly useful powers: all Wasps can fly, and possess the “sting,” a form of burning energy they fire from their hands, making every Wasp dangerous even when unarmed. They are adept at diplomacy, tricking various states against each other to keep them off balance, and forming non-aggression pacts that they break as soon as convenience allows. They also use the citizens of every nation they conquer as slaves, absorbing the best of such countries into their military and using the families and homelands of such slaves as hostages to keep their subjects from revolting. As for the Wasps themselves, every male is a soldier in the army from birth, and every woman is destined to produce more children for the Empire. Obviously, individuals do not matter much to the Wasps. Everyone is simply a cog in their endless war machine.
The Wasps embody all the worst aspects of conquering people throughout history. They have an endless hunger for expansion, and indoctrinate their people to believe that they are the master race, such that lesser peoples can be murdered, tortured, raped, and wiped out with no pesky matters of conscience getting in the way. They destroy civilizations, regardless of what those civilizations had to offer, and replace them with their own. They use slaves and criminals for bloodsports on such a scale that the even the Romans or Mayans would balk. Even their own people are not safe, and any weakness or compassion are sniffed out and destroyed without mercy. One of the great tragedies of the Empire is that not all Wasps are by nature villains. To be sure, the truly powerful are as evil as people come, and there is plenty of casual cruelty amongst the rank and file, but many people within the Empire are just ordinary humans doing their best to survive in a society that would gladly chew them up and spit them out.
For all this, the Wasps are not a small-minded, stupid, or hidebound people. They are extremely practical, and will use whatever tactics, strategies, treachery, or secret weapons they can find to win more battles and wars. In particular, their secret police, the Rekef, are everywhere throughout the world, spreading treachery and chaos, and waiting to inform their masters that a nation is particularly ripe for conquest.
At the start of the series, the Wasps are ruled by Alvdan II, who is not quite as impressive as his father or grandfather. He leaves the matter of running the war to his generals, who are certainly adept enough, but contributes little himself. Alvdan spends most his days ensuring that everyone is too terrified of him to rebel, often by having people executed at random on a grand scale. On two occasions, he even had his entire house staff killed for no reason other than boredom, and had all but one of his younger siblings murdered on his ascension to the throne. That sibling, Seda, Alvdan keeps alive to torment, and let her wonder at what point he will finally kill her. He also seeks supernatural power to ensure that he will never have to sire an heir and his reign will never end. Wasps are an Apt people, which means they understand technology but not magic, so he brings close to him a very powerful sorcerer from the ancient world, which ultimately proves his undoing, and leads his sister Seda to become the first Empress.
While in most stories, this would be the end, and Seda would prove an enlightened ruler, the people of the Lowlands are not so fortunate. Seda is proof that the Wasps are capable of learning from their mistakes and becoming even more dangerous. While Alvdan was concerned only with being feared, Seda makes herself loved by her people, such that she commands their absolute loyalty. She also loses her Aptitude and becomes a skilled sorceress in her own right. Her power is to make everyone she meets her willing slaves, and she fuels this power through drinking and bathing in blood, Elizabeth Bathory style. Indeed, Seda is far more terrifying than her brother, but also more practical. She sets out to rule not only the physical world, but also the supernatural. At the same time, she is willing to do what no other Wasp ruler before her has done in forming true alliances with other nations, rather than simply subjugating them. I almost made this post about Seda, as she is imposing enough.
Still, the Wasp Empire itself is far worse even than its horrible rulers. No matter what individuals may die, the Empire itself is an ever more powerful force of destruction, driving forward the cause of war (in the four years the Wasps have warred with the Lowlands, technology has advanced from crossbows being the height of ingenuity up to bomber jets), leaving countless people dead or enslaved, destroying every great hero that comes up against them, and honestly being so unstoppable that there comes a point where readers are forced to question if they don’t deserve to win based on the sheer inevitability of it all. In most of our own history, after all, it was rarely the most enlightened people who won wars, but the strongest, and the Wasps are most assuredly that.