The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley (Book Review)

Leading the first wave of releases for Tor this year was Brian Staveley’s debut novel The Emperor’s Blades which is the first novel in the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne fantasy series. Leading up to the novel’s release, I’d seen a lot of praise for it, and reviews talked about all sorts of things that the novel did well. At the same time, I also saw some strong criticism of the book that made me really interested in reading it. After all, if a novel gets as much traction in the reviews-sphere as The Emperor’s Blades does, then it is certainly worth a read, I think.

I got the chance to read the novel during the final week of March, and at the same time I was both impressed and disappointed with it. Impressed because of the grand scale of the story and some of the characters, but disappointed because the novel tried to do too much at the same time, and it didn’t come across as having been executed well. Plus, as a result some plotlines were ignored in favour of others and significant sections of the book were just tedious to get through. Still, the novel is definitely worth a read at least.

The Emperor's BladesWhen the Emperor of Annur dies, the land is thrown in disarray as the politicking begins. The public “trial” of his murderer fails spectacularly and all that is left for the empire’s ministers is to find out where the heir to the throne is and bring him back. The dead Emperor’s daughter achieves a high political office as per his last will and testament and she begins to immediately consolidate her family’s power but there are several obstacles in the way, not the least of which is the fact that that her father’s murderer has managed to escape unscathed from her retribution and has even become a popular figure. Religion and politics… the deaths of empires. And there is another child of the dead Emperor, but he is locked away on an island, by choice, for he is undergoing training to become one of the elite soldiers of the empire and such training has its costs.

In short, there are three points of view in the novel. We have the heir Kaden who is training as a monk of the Blind God in a faraway and remote monastery. We have the daughter Adare who is struggling to keep the empire together and to bring her father’s murderers to justice. And we have Valyn, the somewhat wayward son who is set on the path to become a soldier. Each perspective offers something different to the narrative, given their different positions in the grand scheme of things, as well as their attitudes and biases among other things. Having so many different primary viewpoints also allows the author to explore the scope of the world that he has created, which is grand indeed, and throughout the novel we really get a sense for that… epicness, which is always on full display.

But, at the same time, it also makes things chaotic. For example, Adare’s subplot in the novel is one of the most central to the backstory we are introduced to from the first chapter itself, but we see very little of her in the middle parts. She stars in the early chapters and then in the later ones and that is it. With her, there seem to have been a lot of opportunities missed out on and we never really see her deal with the grief of her father’s death either.

This is in contrast to Kaden since he doesn’t find out about his father’s death until much later in the novel, almost near the climax itself, which is too late for the character to explore where he stands as a result and what his role is as far as the future of Annur is concerned. And given that the setting for Kaden’s subplot is a remote monastery, there is always a certain austerity to the character that comes off the wrong way. It just feels too contrived, too put upon.

And then we have Valyn, who had some of the best scenes in the novel, but also got some of the worst ones. His subplot focuses on his training and his initiation, and thus there are some cliches involved such as him being best buddies with another recruit and having some jealous enemies and the hard taskmasters and what not, but it was all quite fun, until we got to the final initiation that is. That is something that really put me off the book since a character died that I was expecting to pull through. It just didn’t sit well with me, considering how the character had died, and how the character had been portrayed before that. I expected much better and much more things from said character.

Taken together, these three “heroes” have disparate stories, but they all begin to converge towards the end, which was a small mercy since Kaden’s scenes were horribly dragged out. There’s just little excitement in a story when the character is undergoing psych-training in how to be a monk, and if it involves said character doing some rather menial chores and being punished for the smallest of infractions. It was all just too weird.

Plus, there was a big plot hole in the book that I just didn’t understand at all. When word reaches Valyn that his father is dead, he immediately thinks of his brother Kaden and that he has to warn him about what has happened and that his life might be in danger as well. The mounts that the Kettral, the soldiery that Valyn is training to join, possess flying mounts called kettral who can cover enormous distances in little time. Given how remote Kaden’s monastery home is, that is a valuable thing. And yet, the Empire’s ministers send a vast delegation from the capital by land in a journey that is going to take several weeks. And yet we have a mode of communication that is going to take mere days and yet no one does that. I mean, one would think that it would be better for the next Emperor to take to the vacant throne immediately, but that doesn’t happen. Hence why I feel that most of Kaden’s scenes were just extra baggage in the novel and that his subplot and the necessary isolation that it required was merely a contrivance to provide the relevant tension, rather than something intrinsically necessary.

And some of the treatment of the female characters in the novel is also dubious, although nothing extreme thankfully. Still, the female characters in the novel never really rise out of the shadow of the male characters and seem to be ever dependent on them, even someone like Adare who holds high office in the Empire, albeit thanks to her father’s will. Ha Lin, one of Valyn’s friends, comes close to being an independent character, but her arc doesn’t end so well, and is just a disappointment.

When all is said and done however, Brian Staveley’s debut is still an interesting read and one that I’d recommend because of the lore and mythology that he weaves in throughout, getting you really amped up for the climax, and giving you the hook to return for the second book, whenever that is released. So not all that bad a novel really. It needs some work, but then so do many other debuts.

Rating: 7.5/10

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Posted on May 5, 2014, in Book Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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