Epic fantasy has been heavily stocked over the years with some powerhouse writers — Jordan, Erikson, Wurts, Rothfuss and Martin have been the standard bearers of this genre of fantasy. It’s a pretty challenging genre to break into, but after reading the first book of the CHRONICLE OF THE UNHEWN THRONE, The Emperor’s Blades, I am reminded that there is always room for someone new.
In epic fantasy, great empires are never allowed to simply exist in peace. It’s almost inevitable that there is about to be regime change, or some long forgotten force/enemy is coming to threaten the known world. Brian Stavely uses this formula as the crisis into which the three young heirs to the Unhewn Throne are cast. The three children of the ruling Emperor of the Annurian Empire are all geographically separated, in training of one form or another to assume fitting roles. When their father is assassinated, their lives are completely overturned and they are forced to become who they must be without a period of grace.
If Kaden is the heir to the throne, then the choice of his training to become emperor is very odd. Living among a reclusive ascetic order of monks provides a great deal of training and experience, but exactly how that relates to becoming emperor is hard to imagine. Kaden’s teachers are cryptic, prickly and often punish him for failure to within an inch of his life, but because his father sent him to the monastery he endures and tried to improve.
Adare, oldest child of the Emperor, has been raised and trained to intellectual prowess. Her background and inability to inherit the throne make her well suited to becoming a powerful minister in the government. Her father’s bequest includes assignment as the Minister of Finance. In spite of the differences in gender and age, Adare’s skill and strength of character make her a match for her peers. The only child close enough to exact revenge on the suspected murderer of her father, she allies herself with those around her to try and bring the criminal to justice.
Valyn has chosen to be trained as one of the elite Kettral. Candidates spend years being trained in different disciplines to become members of teams of warriors who serve the Empire as special troops. I am reminded of US Special Forces and the training processes they have to endure in order to join a team. Valyn’s status as a son of the ruling dynasty does more to make him a target of competition and derision than to help him through the training. With only weeks to go before his final test to become a full Kettral, Valyn has no choice but to persevere with the hope of wreaking vengeance on whoever killed his father. In the midst of all this, a combination of events makes it clear that Valyn’s life is also at risk.
Brian Staveley tells this complex story with a clear voice. His ability to keep each of the characters more or less moving forward is adequate, but it is the level of detail that he is able to depict that really shines. Whether he is describing the conditions of a gruesome subterranean monster, the horrific wounds inflicted on a victim of torture or the sensation of being trained with methodologies that border on abuse you get a real, gritty experience.
The Emperor’s Blades is a solid first novel in a new epic fantasy series. I am glad to have had the chance to see this one kicked off and can’t wait for more from Brian Staveley.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes your reading seems to fall into a recognizable pattern? Sometimes it’s an obvious similarity of plot, sometimes it’s one of character (I still fondly recall my Pre-20th Century Whore run of The Dress Lodger, The Crimson Petal and The White, Slammerkin — you should read all three if not in a row), sometimes it’s theme or mood. Lately, I seem to have been on a run of books-that-don’t-meet-potential. The newest member of the club is Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, which though employing a lot of the same old same old genre tropes, had an intriguing premise and an interesting if relatively common structure. Being a fan of the genre, I don’t have any particular issue when an author chooses to work with the same elements so many others are, but once that choice is made, you really need to nail the execution, and unfortunately, The Emperor’s Blades felt as if it fell short of what it could have been.
It opens, as many such epics have, with “trouble in the Empire.” In this case, the Emperor has been murdered as part of what appears to be a larger conspiracy and in a few quick pages we’re introduced to his three children in their separate settings/roles. His heir, Kaden, has been sent away to study in a far-off, hidden mountain monastery (is there any other kind?) with a sect of discipline-crazed and koan-spouting monks (are there any other kinds?). The monastery is so far away, in fact, that Kaden will not learn of his father’s death until near the very end of the novel, so instead we’re focused on a mysterious creature killing animals in the vicinity, Kaden’s studies, and the eventual revelation of the real reasons the monks exist and why Kaden was sent there almost a decade ago.
His brother Valyn, meanwhile, is in his final year of training to become a member of an elite fighting force (think Navy Seals or Rangers, save they fly missions on giant Roc-like birds). The training itself is brutal and even fatal at times, but the risk is even greater now as it appears someone is trying to kill Valyn as they did his father. Even amongst his small cadre of cadets, Valyn is unsure of whom to trust. Last, and in this case definitely least as she takes up far fewer pages, is the Emperor’s daughter Adare, the only one still in the capital city. Thanks to her father’s will, she is now a minister of the government, which is temporarily headed by a regent until her brother Kaden can be returned. Adare must try to deal with the apparent killer of her father, overcome the obvious lack of faith in her abilities from the other ministers (who look down upon her as a woman), and learn to deal with the regent, an up-and-coming general chosen by the ministers for his relative inexperience in politics.
Let’s start with the positives. I thought the premise — Emperor killed, plot against the children, did a nice job of lending a sense of urgency and suspense to the entire novel. It plays out most fully with Valyn on his island training setting, but does lend a background concern to Kadan’s scenes as well. Adare, meanwhile, seems not to be a target, which I thought was a bad choice in that it a) robbed her storyline of a lot of suspense beyond the political and b) seemed to make it a little too clear who was not, and perhaps who was, the villain in town.
Characterization was mixed. Valyn was the most fully rounded of the siblings, and many of the side characters in his section, save for the villains, were well formed, feeling like actual people. Many of them had secrets or were a bit gray, which helped maintain a level of suspense. Kaden was likable and I enjoyed his scenes, but he was a pretty typical young-and-rash-boy-who-doesn’t-understand-the-wisdom-of-his-elders sort of fantasy character. Adare is also likable but, similar to Kaden, falls into a typical fantasy sort — bookish female of inner strength but lacking some confidence trying to prove herself in a world of men. Her relative lack of page time didn’t help her in this regard, and though I assume we will see a lot more of her in book two, she never came alive for me in The Emperor’s Blades.
The stock nature of characters continues with many of the side-characters in the non-Valyn strands, such as a taciturn stern monk with a quick disciplinary hand or a young impetuously disobedient thief. I could have lived happily with this (see my above re genre tropes), but it really became a detriment to the novel when it came to our villains, where we get a smarmy power-hungry priest and a smarmy arrogant and sadistic son of a powerful noble. This may be a personal quirk, but while I can get along with a blandly stock good character, I really want my villains to have some original oomph to them. Granted, our villains, in good epic form, have larger villains behind them, but still. My favorite character in the entire novel actually, was an assassin who only appears at the very end. Ironically enough, for an assassin pledged to the God of Death, she adds a welcome heaping of life to the book.
While on the topic of character, I have to add that I found myself a little disappointed in the portrayal of the female characters, with one exception. Adare, as mentioned, is a bit too stock and is so far at least given short shrift with regard to plot. Other women are either whores, victims of brutality (often both), or serve as a means to an end for the male characters (don’t want to give too much away here). I’m hoping for a broader portrayal in the sequel.
The plot, as mentioned, has a nice drumbeat of urgency and suspense to it, especially in Valyn’s section, often in and especially at the end of Kaden’s, and far less so in Adare’s. Unfortunately, the pleasure I mostly took in Valyn’s section was diluted at times by some implausible moments, and was really undermined by a major segment involving the last and most dangerous part of his training. I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers, but none of it made any sense to me, from the training “session” itself to the characters’ choices to how it played out to the end result. I just kept thinking “but” or “C’mon!” or “Why would…? or “Why wouldn’t…”. It was one of the near-book-slamming moments of frustration that sometimes arises in reading. And I have to admit, I’m generally not a fan of the we-want-to-be-so-elite-we’ll-kill-our-trainees concept — I just don’t ever buy it. I had the same level of frustration toward the end in some of the climactic moments, but again, won’t expand on them.
The world building was solid, mostly done with side references to the larger world, save for some scenes in the capital. I liked that it isn’t the usual European medieval setting and we’re clearly going to see more of this world and I look forward to that. The prose is smooth and fluid and often sharply vivid (some might think too much so at times of violence). And I like the whole villain-behind-the-villain set-up, especially as I would imagine they’ll start to come into play much more in the sequel.
Despite the frustrations (which were high at times), I never considered not finishing The Emperor’s Blades. The two male characters were engaging, I enjoyed the level of suspense, and the writing was pretty strong. Which means I’ll pick up the second book, on the assumption that Staveley will improve on the issues that prevented The Emperor’s Blades from meeting its potential.