Review: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Title: The Emperor's Blades
Author: Brian Staveley
Genre: high fantasy
Series: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #1
Pages: 480
Publication: January 14, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

When the emperor of Annur is murdered, his children must fight to uncover the conspiracy—and the ancient enemy—that effected his death.

Kaden, the heir apparent, was for eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, where he learned the inscrutable discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power which Kaden must master before it’s too late. When an imperial delegation arrives to usher him back to the capital for his coronation, he has learned just enough to realize that they are not what they seem—and enough, perhaps, to successfully fight back.

Meanwhile, in the capital, his sister Adare, master politician and Minister of Finance, struggles against the religious conspiracy that seems to be responsible for the emperor’s murder. Amid murky politics, she’s determined to have justice—but she may be condemning the wrong man.

Their brother Valyn is struggling to stay alive. He knew his training to join the Kettral— deadly warriors who fly massive birds into battle—would be arduous. But after a number of strange apparent accidents, and the last desperate warning of a dying guard, he’s convinced his father’s murderers are trying to kill him, and then his brother. He must escape north to warn Kaden—if he can first survive the brutal final test of the Kettral.

Reviewed by Danielle

Three siblings, Adare, a master politician; Valyn, an elite soldier; and Kaden, a disciplined monk, use their individual talents to solve three individual mysteries that weave together into a larger conspiracy for their father’s throne. While the plot could come out of dozens of Tor books, The Emperor’s Blades doesn’t read like your typical high fantasy. The language is lush and challenging, overflowing with descriptions that almost tip to purple. Its prose is the true star and is very impressive. It’s so good, and such a pleasure to read, that it almost makes up for the fact that the first three quarters of the novel are actually very light on events.

The emperor is murdered! Off screen. A prostitute is tortured! Off screen. A monster attacks the monastery! Off screen. Every thing in Adare’s storyline! Off. Screen. It’s frustrating.

Instead, we spend a lot of time Kaden and Valyn, seeing the ins and outs and daily struggles of their very different training regimens. I will say, I loved watching Valyn learn to be at Kettral. In a genre where we’re expected to just accept that a farmboy can be a blademaster in 3 months or a different farmboy can suddenly command armies without flaw, I liked seeing the boys work for their gifts. Kaden’s was a bit more hit or miss for me, as his training is very internal and mostly comprised of menial labor while his teacher delivers long, exposition-filled monologues. It did let me feel very close to the character and humanized him, which is good considering the nature of his talents.

I wanted to love Adare just as much, but, I’m not kidding, she gets five chapters. Worse, they’re spaced out across the four-six month time line, making every thing that happens in her area seem disjointed and distant. Her big reveal moment, (all three of the kids get one,) lacked impact, because we hadn’t been allowed to grow to like the characters involved. The way she handled it showed guts and the political mind we’d been told she possessed, but again, I just needed to see more of her to justify her inclusion.

None of the reveals had enough payoff for me. As I said, Adare’s lacked emotion. Valyn’s was the most “ah ha!”, as pieces finally came together, but the villain was still...exactly who we suspected. Kaden’s last few chapters actually had several surprises and probably the biggest reveals, but it was all shrugged off in the text. Again, some of this is Kaden’s skill, which renders him emotionally vacant, but none of the side characters acted like these events were out of the ordinary, either. (Hint, they really, really are.)

I liked the boys a lot, and that’s why it’s frustrating that they act too old and unaffected, (Kaden is 17, Valyn is 16. So why, when they see Valyn’s 15 year old sniper, do they both think, “she looks like a child!”, when they’re children, too?) This is a problem with a lot of books in the genre, but it’s still a pet peeve. They both go through a lot, there’s no denying that, but their voices read well beyond their years and nothing seemed to shock them. Either age them up or let me feel some childlike confusion and frustration.

On the plus side, the few battles we get are very well written. I’m especially fond of the entirety of Hull’s Trial. The world building is aces. I would have liked an expanded glossary, but that’s a quibble. The author has taken the time to build a whole world, not just what’s immediately important to the plot, and it shows. Likewise, there’s not a ton of magic, but what we do see is logical and consistent with the system that’s been explained.

In the end, I can overlook some frustrating pacing and an underdeveloped third POV for really great writing, tight world building, and complex characters. Truly, the author is on to something special with this series and I can’t wait for it to continue. If he expands Adare’s POV and remembers that not all the plot lines need to come to a climax at once, (this isn’t porn, it’s fantasy,) I think book two will be a five-star knockout.

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