The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley has been getting a lot of attention through social media and blogging sites. As soon as I read about it, I thought it sounded amazing and when I listed in my “books that caught my eye” post on my blog, I wrote:
The blurb of The Emperor’s Blades suggests it has epic potential. I love the mention of “murky politics”, the fact it will have multiple POVs, and yes, I do like that one of the major POVs is female… and a female in a powerful position described as “master politician”.
So, now that I have read it, where does it stand? Well, unfortunately not quite as high as I had hoped. It was a fun read and I loved some aspects about the world and the story, but it just didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Perhaps you shouldn’t take this as too harsh of a criticism, because my expectations were fairly high; after all, I’ve heard it said that ‘this will be the best fantasy novel of 2014′.
First I will explain why it didn’t meet my expectations: Staveley’s writing style features an extensive amount of ‘explaining’; not as much as some books I have read, but a fair bit more than I prefer. He also has a tendency to repeat information more often than is needed. That said, depending on your tastes and preferences, neither of these are necessarily a bad thing that should have you writing off the book. For me though, books that have this habit tend not to be amongst my favorites. Also, some of the ‘revelations’ in the plot were predictable. Because of this, I questioned the intelligence of certain characters because of their blindness to plot ‘twists’ I felt coming a mile away. I almost wonder if the repetition and explanations were scaled back a bit if they could have been less likely to be picked up by the reader, making them less predictable.
When reading the blurb, it lists three characters, the three children of the Emperor:
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.
I had assumed each of these characters would be a major POV, so I will review the book by looking at the story and providing my impression of each of them:
I’ll start with Adare. I am not sure why she got almost equal billing in the blurb as she was barely in the book. As it turns out, I was actually completely okay with this as her chapters turned out to be my least favorite. I think she could prove to be interesting in future books in this series, but in this book, Valyn and Kaden stole the spotlight. This was much more their story. Maybe she has a larger role in the bigger picture of the series, but her turn in the spotlight really is yet to come. Her chapters gave us good information on what is happening in Annur, so they were useful, but they just never grabbed my attention as fully as the brothers’ chapters.
Moving on, Kaden and Valyn’s stories were both coming of age tales, just in different settings. Kaden’s story is that of an Emperor-To-Be sent to live the modest life of a monk in a very remote part of the mountains. His training is rather brutal compared to what one may expect from a monastery. His mentor takes no mercy on him as he is assigned tasks that seem to make no sense and punished harshly seemingly at his mentor’s whim. Also, there are mysteries here amongst the monks. There are characters you feel are more than they appear and it does lend an intriguing air to the book. I like Kaden. He is far from a spoiled heir and is rather humble after living amongst the monks for so many years. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to life outside of the monastery.
I have to admit Valyn’s chapters were my favorite. He is training to be an elite fighter (Kettral) and I think I enjoy having the larger variety of characters, the nature of his training and the battles as he makes his way to becoming a full Kettral. His is very much a grueling coming of age tale paired with mystery. Valyn is put in a position of not knowing who to trust but he must work to solve a mystery as well as determine who amongst him may be a traitor to the throne.
It is within this plot thread that the magic system is most seen: the Kettral train ‘leaches’ (magically gifted individuals) to be part of their crew. Leaches each have a unique source of power (called a well and kept secret) that they tap into to perform their magic. [Brian Staveley explained in one interview: ‘The fact that each leach has a different well means that no one, reader or other characters in the novel, starts out with an understanding of who can do what when.’] The Kettral teams also ride on gigantic predatory birds called kettrals which is a cool addition to the world. I really enjoyed the atmosphere in these chapters, the teams, the trials and the mystery.
I did still have a couple of reservations about even Valyn’s chapters: the largest of these were how many of the characters seem to be defined by their emotions. A couple of examples: there is the rage-y one, always ready to fight and blow things up. There is the calculating one, always solitary and so mysterious and likely up to no good. There is the arrogant bastard, always looking down his nose at everyone. I just felt these characters lacked any real depth and they felt closer to caricatures than genuine people. They weren’t bad, they just seemed …. simple. I think I would have preferred more complexity to at least some of the secondary characters. I believe this may have been exasperated by Staveley’s penchant for repetition. Not always a bad thing, some readers enjoy it, but I found it tiring to constantly be reading about how angry a certain character was, or how creepy and withdrawn another character was.
So, overall, I have to admit despite my complaints, I did enjoy this story. It was engaging, it was fun to read and the series has serious potential. I think I would have preferred a tighter writing style with less repetition and less explaining, but that may be more a personal preference on my part. There are many successful books that read this way. I definitely plan on reading the next installment to see where Staveley takes it.
A version of this review was originally posted on Fantasy Faction
The Emperor’s Blades will be released January 14, 2014 in the US and February 1, 2014 in the UK. Many thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.