The Emperor's Blades review

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Emperor's Blades is the first book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series and the debut Fantasy novel for American author Brian Staveley. The book was released by Tor in January 2014 and the follow-up, The Providence of Fire, will be out in January 2015.
The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again . . . 
The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy. 
His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation. 
Meanwhile, the Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. And Kaden, heir to an empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways – which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he’s learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move.
Tor pulled out the full advertising machine for the release of The Emperor's Blades.  With a title like that, a premise worthy of the prevalent and conservative traditional Epic Fantasy novels and a beautiful cover art by artist Richard Anderson, the appeal of the book for Epic Fantasy readers couldn't have been better (short of having some Erikson, Abercrombie or Martin comparison by a famous Fantasy author quoted on the book). While The Emperor's Blades isn't the next great herald in the Epic genre (Brandon Sanderson is probably the one right now), it's a nice addition to it and will please a lot of readers, myself included.

So, Staveley's story begins with the murder of an Emperor. It's quite the classic tale and it doesn't seem to serve as a backdrop for something more at first but it's at the core of the story for a significant part of it (don't worry, we eventually discover that the goal of the principal characters won't remain as simple as a vengeance tale or a war of retribution). More specifically, the incident stands as the initiating event to motivate the secondary characters. I am distinctively pointing them out since the event isn't really important for the presentation of the three main protagonists we follow from that point, namely the children of this late Emperor.

Kaden is the heir, the one bearing the golden eyes, and the first one we encounter.  He was sent away at a younger age to study some kind of discipline of the mind and body with monks (the Shin) in a far away and isolated monastery. You may think that it's kind of weird for an heir to an Empire to study in this field instead of learning how to rule but it becomes quite understandable when we learn more about the role and responsibility of the Empire's leader. Dark entities (I'm not certain if that's the right word since they only seem to have a different 'view' of the world but are still focused on eliminating humanity as they consider them a species with a disease) are presumably coming back after hundreds of years of absence and things aren't looking great for humanity with so few on the lookout for them. Here again, we are in familiar territory.  By the way, I have always found it kind of strange in Fantasy books, when a great and malign force was eliminated in the past, to find so few records of it and for the occurrence to have become a dubious legend almost worthy of a laugh.

Anyway, the important thing is Kaden's tale.  The young man is easy to love and isn't treated as a prince by his peers. Quickly enough, he's thrown into the hands of a new mentor, a mysterious man and outsider of the Shin (would you believe he's hiding a puzzling past?) who will push him to his limits and make him understand why he's so important to the world. He has to go through a quick coming of age and becomes a primordial target for his father executioner.

Next is Valyn. For me, the younger brother clearly stands as the most compelling character of The Emperor's Blades. I mentioned in a review about young men growing up in military orders that they tend to become a trope of Epic Fantasy and authors now have to create peculiar orders to spice things up.  Actually, in this instance, Staveley succeeded with the nature of this order, the Kettral, the SWAT team of the Empire using giant birds as a mean of transportation, a cool idea. Even if the training of Valyn and the framework of relationships he is creating are more straightforward in term of storytelling, they offer a more dynamic flow. That's how I like it anyway. Genuinely, I can say that the young Kettral wing leader story alone would have made a good book.

Finally there's Adare. She adds a much needed female viewpoint (even if there are a good number of secondary female characters) and this point of view is directly from the heart of the Empire as she's given an important function in the interim lead command.  When the storylines connect in future books, all the background presented through her will be important. I felt a lack of understanding of her character but she's a strong woman who won't let the perpetrators of her father murder rest. Maybe it's the lack of chapters focusing on her that led to it.

Reading my review so far, I believe that you will now gather that Staveley's novel is using several traditional elements in his Epic story. To balance that fact with the innovation found in the book, I'll let the author himself comment on his work with something he mentioned in an AMA:
[...] That said, there are some elements in The Emperor’s Blades that I’m pleased with. The monastic veneration of the Blank God by the Shin, for instance, looks a lot like other pseudo-Buddhist business we’ve seen before in fantasy, but the origins of the Shin discipline are much darker, the implications much muddier, than what I’ve seen elsewhere. I enjoyed writing the Kettral because I’ve never quite seen a fantasy analogue to modern special forces (although there may be one out there – anyone?) The leaches (the world’s magic users) intrigued me because I thought I saw a little corner of the fantasy magic world that (to my knowledge) hadn’t been staked out yet. [...]
As you can see, there are enough original Fantasy elements to please everyone but the genre bending aficionado.  I already pointed out that the Kettral are a very good idea and you can consider that Staveley's magic system had some work put into it. It's not ''showing'' too much and we learn about it step by step, not simply in a rhetoric lecture in a class. In a nutshell, the leaches are magic practitioners who gather forces through a well which can be almost anything.  This is where it becomes interesting, the leaches hide their well from each other. This feature is used more than once by the author to create unpredictable situations.

The Emperor's Blades presents its share of surprises but mostly by holding back some information from the reader (the author should work on this). The wells of leaches are an example.  Still, the book offers a good dose of action, more so when some of the different threads connect and is written with just the right amount of description and a pace keeping the reader interest high enough to make a satisfying page turner. And there's some great original swearing!

To wrap things up, I would return to my opening statement, The Emperor's Blades is not the new thing that everybody will speculate about.  However, it offers interesting characters and even if the story and much of the "Medieval-themed" world building is conventional, it will quench the thirst of Epic Fantasy lovers in need of something familiar with some novelty here and there.  A commendable debut that will bring you back to old Fantasy we use to love.

Technically, I think the Tor Books cover by Richard Anderson is amazing, a beautiful illustration with its own style.  There's also a nice looking map included in the book (that you can also find at my map index) and the hardcover edition of the novel stands at 480 pages.

The Emperor's Blades review rating :

World building
Magic system 

Overall (not an average)


nellwyn said...

it was a fine read.wonder if he will write more about Csestriim Vs Neveriim- story in his next books, can't wait...

Unknown said...

Great review. I think the reason it didn't turn out to be such an amazing debut fantasy novel was because a lot of people went into it with extremely high expectations, and ended up disappointed.

Overall, I agree that it was a good start to what looks like an interesting fantasy series. And I definitely love that cover art. :)

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