Review: THE EMPEROR’S BLADES by Brian Staveley (Tor)

Staveley-1-TheEmperorsBladesUKA superb, must-read debut epic fantasy

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 prepare to unmask a conspiracy. His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. And after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can act, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.

The Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. Lastly Kaden, heir to the empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways, which Kaden must master to unlock ancient powers. But when an imperial delegation arrives, has he learnt enough to keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?

There was much hype around The Emperor’s Blades when it was released last year. Naturally, being the ornery and difficult fellow, I decided to wait. And wait. As the weeks passed, I became distracted by other things and other new books. Then I moved to Canada. After the arrival of the sequel, The Providence of Fire, I decided I had waited long enough, and started reading The Emperor’s Blades (wow, that was one long, convoluted tale that was utterly unimportant and uninteresting…). And then I kept reading. Well into the night, multiple times. With only a couple of niggles, I can sum things up thus: Believe the hype. This is a great novel and the beginning of something special.

The novel is split into three parallel threads, each following one of Emperor’s children: Kaden, Adare, and Valyn. A decade before the novel begins, the siblings were scattered around the empire, sent off to follow different paths. Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has been shipped off to a remote, mountain-based monastery to follow the teachings of a sect of monks who appear to “worship” nothingness. Adare remains in the imperial capital, studying for a life in politics, and has been appointed finance minister. Valyn has been sent to train as a Kettral, the empire’s supreme fighting force.

Of the three threads, Valyn’s is both the dominant (in terms of pages) and the most interesting: after all, he’s going through insanely brutal, intense training. Think the US Navy SEALs, but in a fantasy setting. And, instead of boats and planes, they ride into battle on the backs and in the talons of big, fuck-off birds of prey… I mean, how cool is that? We see the final few days of Valyn’s training, and learn of the relationships, friendships and rivalries he’s built over the years. His group of cadets is varied, colourful, and filled with your usual internal politics, bickering, and posturing, and sadly a lethal thread of competition and… something more sinister.

Staveley-1-TheEmperorsBladesUSAdare doesn’t feature very much in this novel. We get the beginnings of an understanding of the extensive politics of the empire, as well as the first glimpses of the wider world’s picture. She’s an interesting character, and towards the end we really see things starting to come together. Very promising for The Providence of Fire.

Kaden’s thread is kind of interesting: as the future emperor, he doesn’t appear to be learning that much that will hold him in good stead on the throne. We learn a fair bit about the monks’ ethos and philosophy. It’s a bit repetitive and sometimes very descriptive, but as with the other threads, events build and things come together very well at the end. Some mysteries are unveiled, some just hinted at, and he comes into contact with some really interesting characters.

Given how much more I enjoyed Valyn’s story over the other two, I sadly felt that the switches between the threads slowed the pace at the start. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, as things merged so very well in the second half of the novel. Superb storytelling, really.

So, just to get them out of the way, there were a couple of things that didn’t work as well for me. First, Kaden’s storyline was filled with a lot of what felt like treading water. Some of the explanations and descriptions of the monks’ ethos and training dragged. Even knowing how it turns out by the end of the novel, I still thought some of it could have been pared back a little bit. Second, a couple of the (already few and far between) scenes with Adare had a modicum of over-description, too. That being said, the end of the novel promises that Adare will feature far more prominently in book two. (Hurray!) Three… no, that’s it. The rest was great.

Staveley’s writing is excellent: well-crafted, well-paced, and nary a cliche in sight (at least, I missed any that might have been there). One thing that confused me a little was the naming convention: it seemed very… diverse. There were a few names with apostrophes in them (a bug-bear of mine), some very cool names, but also then some rather ‘mundane’ names thrown in for good measure. And seemingly out of nowhere. Thankfully, the names were almost all good names, so I wasn’t thrown out of the story. I’m guessing it was a decision made to reflect the breadth and scope of cultures that make up the Empire? Staveley is a master storyteller, and I was absolutely hooked.

If you haven’t read this novel yet, then I can’t recommend it enough: this is an excellent start to a new epic fantasy series, and is a must for all fans of the genre. If I’d read it in a timely manner, this would have been in my Best of 2014. Retroactively, it certainly belongs in that selection.

Marvellous. Just bloody marvellous.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go start reading The Providence of Fire


For fans of: Peter V. Brett, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Polansky

Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blade is published in the UK by Tor UK (who sent me the book for review) and in the US by Tor US. For more, visit the author’s website and be sure to follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.

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