Matt Kelly lost track of ex-girlfriend Anna Barrett after she dropped out of Princeton. So when she shows up on his doorstep looking for a place to stay, Matt is torn. He desperately wants to believe that she is clean, but it’s taken him a long time to get over her. Within a few days, Anna has begun counseling run by Imperium Luminis, an arm of the Catholic Church and a group Anna studied in a course on cults at Princeton.
Matt is suspicious of the “Empire of Light” and their intentions toward Anna, who has disappeared. When Anna’s stepfather suggests that Matt infiltrate the cult, Matt is dismayed to find he is strangely attracted to the philosophy of their founder, Giuseppe Conti. As Matt learns more about the group, he discovers his feelings about the group are no longer black and white. Will Matt be able to extricate Anna before he becomes fully indoctrinated?
David Czuchlewski’s second novel, Empire of Light, is both a mystery and a philosophical novel, with the philosophical far outweighing the mysterious. Matt’s search for Anna quickly becomes a personal quest for meaning and faith. The narrative alters between Matt’s search for Anna, his reminiscences about their days at Princeton, and excerpts from The Pilgrim, a treatise from the Giuseppe Conti.
At the beginning of Empire of Light, Matt’s faith is shaky but his opinions on the sect are black and white. Except for his family, Matt appears to live in isolation, so it is not inconceivable that he is quickly pulled back into Anna’s orbit. In a sense, his life has been on hold awaiting her return. What is difficult to fathom is how easily Matt accepts what he is told by both the sect and Anna’s stepfather.
As events progress, Matt’s opinions on the group move from black and white to grey. Matt is certain of only one thing – something is missing from his life - and he wonders if faith may be the answer. By this point in the novel, readers may wonder why Matt hasn’t just walked away from Anna. His desire to abandon his job and life to “save” her doesn’t ring true.
While the twists in Czuchlewski’s novel are cleverly managed, the novel’s pacing is disrupted by the lengthy passages cited from The Pilgrim. In the end, Empire of Light reads more like philosophical fiction rather than a mystery novel, and its early promise is not realized. Empire of Light feels unfinished, and readers, like Matt, may feel something is missing.