I had a mixed response to the first book in Brian Staveley‘s trilogy, The Emperor’s Blades, but thought book two, Providence of Fire, was a big improvement, boding well for the future of the series. That optimism was borne out, as the final book, The Last Mortal Bond, though perhaps not quite as consistently good as Providence, continues to deepen the themes and characters, bringing the trilogy to a happily satisfying conclusion. I’m going to assume you’ve read the first two books and won’t bother recapping who people are. Plus, it will be impossible to discuss the concluding volume without spoilers for books one and two, so fair warning.
If the first two books showed us the separation of the three siblings at the heart of the Annurian Empire, book three deals with their eventual coming together, though given that one stabbed another in book two (fatally, all assumed), one might imagine it’s not exactly a happy family reunion we’re talking about here. To say there are trust issues would be a major understatement. But before we can get there, each has to work through their own plots a bit.
Often in these sort of multi-stranded fight against ancient villains (in this case the near-eternal Csestriim in the form of Ran il Tornja) and contemporary foes (the massed Urghul army invading Annur), each person or group has their part to play in the general struggle. What I really like about Staveley’s approach though is that the three siblings don’t only disagree about how to fight the enemy, they don’t even agree on who/what the enemy is. Even better, the reader is also kept off-balance, so we’re never quite sure which, if any, if the siblings to be rooting for. This complexity of goal and plot was one of my favorite aspects of The Last Mortal Bond.
Thanks to this complexity, characters are often wrong, a much more realistic and relatable trait. I also enjoyed how the characters from the first few novels continue to change and grow. Kaden, for instance, has to find his bearings as leader of the newly created Republic, come to terms with his feelings about his siblings, resist the temptation to retreat to often into his monk-trained “happy place,” void of all emotion. And he’s forced to question his basic understanding of this war, who his enemies and allies are, and his view of how the world works. Save for the monk part, his sister Adare has much the same path (though her leadership role is as Emperor), and as well the complicating factor of her new son. The final sibling, Valyn, is a bit more one-note in terms of characterization, though he does provide much of the action and also has one of the most moving sections of the novel. The other character involved in most action scenes is Gwenna, Valyn’s former Kestral colleague, and she was actually my favorite in the book in terms of character and storyline thanks to the mix of action (including a great assault on a fortified area), character development and the interaction amongst her wing and between her wing and others they encounter. If anything, her subplot steals the show a bit from the siblings.
The different strands don’t just have different plots, but different tones and emphases. Kaden’s, for instance, is much more philosophical and introspective. Valyn’s is the most grim and despairing and probably the most bloody. Gwenna’s is probably the most varied, and offers up some camaraderie and much-needed humor
The Last Mortal Bond raises some thoughtful questions as it progresses, examining the nature of humanity, the relationship between gods and their worshippers, forms of governance, leadership, cowardice, and the like. For instance, it’s often taken as a given that when the fate of humanity is at stake, one does all one can to save it. But here is Kaden musing on that very question:
A pair of hawks circled silently upward… Those Hawks followed their own ancient imperatives… And the peaks themselves, carved from reds deeper and fuller than human blood… From russet sandstone by forces stronger than any human hand — what did those mountains care for women, for men… What did the sky care? Or the sun?
What if the world were like this?… Unblemished by the scrabbling of men and women. No houses, no gouges in the dirt… No roads carved across the land… Would that be worse?
This is not the only time this question is raised, and it makes the reader pause a bit and wonder themselves if saving people is in fact such a great goal. The above passage also, even truncated as it is, gives a sense of Staveley’s prose, which is excellent throughout — vivid, precise, original with a good number of sentences and passages worth lingering over.
The Last Mortal Bond did have a few issues. It felt a little over-long in its 600 pages, and somewhat paradoxically, the ending felt a bit rushed. And a few plot points seemed a tad forced or contrived. But these are outweighed by the book’s thoughtfulness, excellent writing style/language, set action pieces, bittersweet close, and the way in which it keeps the reader always guessing. Overall, the trilogy’s weakest segment is the first book, which means those starting out will only find the series more engrossing and better written as they continue, with both plot and character broadening and deepening as one goes on.
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne — (2014-2016) Publisher: The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods. Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late. An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test. At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing — and risk everything — to see that justice is meted out.