Brian Staveley's debut novel, The Emperor's Blades, opens with a chilling scene: a father turns on his daughter, afflicted with Rot. It sets up some disturbing backstory, and pulls us into the complicated world of the Annurian Empire where this story is set. It's a good opening for a promising fantasy debut.
Some spoilers below.
The ponderously-titled The Emperor's Blades, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne Book 1 is set up to be this year's blockbuster fantasy title. Now that Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has concluded, and with epic fantasy still going strong on television and the bestseller lists, it's clear that Tor Books needed something needs to fill the gap. Staveley's series steps up to the plate in good order to fill those particular shoes.
His story is a solid fantasy debut, filled to the brim with history, lore and potential, all the while while it avoids becoming a carbon copy of the doorstopper books inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Rather, it's a modern epic fantasy mixed in with a nice dose of Lovecraftian weirdness. This first book, the first of a projected trilogy, stands apart from the general epic fantasy scene by taking many of the typical elements and remixing them into a modern and excellent world that supports an intriguing story, one that doesn't abandon the main characters into a prophesy or into events entirely outside of their control.
In The Emperor's Blades, the Emperor of the Annurian Empire has been killed, apparently the victim of the Empire's political and religious workings. His three children are scattered around the empire: Kaden, the direct heir to the Unhewn Throne comes under the training of a new teacher at a remote Shin monastery in the Ashk'lan Mountains, Valyn, the younger son, is finishing up his training with the Kettral, an elite military unit that flies into battle with the help of giant hawks, and Adare, the Emperor's only daughter, remains at the capitol as the Minister of Finance, holding the empire's bureaucratic infrastructure together.
Kaden and Valyn take up a majority of the book, each of their arcs a solid coming of age story: Kaden has been sent to the Shin Monks for a reason: to empty his mind, in a sort of Dagobah/Jedi training regimen before taking the throne. His training is hard, demanding and ultimately transforms him over the course of his arc.
Valyn undergoes the same amount of abuse as he goes through training to become an elite Ketteral soldier. His training isn't unlike that of what one would expect from a Navy SEAL: it's harsh, with trainees undergoing years of training to make them the best they can be. He goes through a similar character arc, this one forged through the actions of his trainers and fellow cadets.
Finally, Adare's arc is criminally short, and arguably, the story arc that holds the entire story together. While she remains at the capitol, it's through her story that we get a greater sense of the world in which they inhabit, and where we discover that the plot that took down her and her brother's father was much greater and far more complicated. She's expertly drawn up and clever, and it's a shame that we didn't see more from her, something that will hopefully change in future entries to this series. I never get the sense that this is explicitly a gender issue; there's a number of rather well drawn female characters throughout the book and world. Rather, it feels like her story was a bit of an afterthought, conceived of or implemented after Kaden and Valyn's stories were well fleshed out. Their stories have a lot to them, and there's likely chapters and sections that could have been pared down quite.
Of the three storylines, Valyn's feels as though it's the most thought-out, and easily could have been a novel in and of itself. Staveley goes into great detail with the bird-borne soldiers, and comes up with a truly exciting final test that pushes Valyn to his limits. All the while, several of his fellow cadets have perished, leading Valyn to believe that he's also targeted by his father's assassin. As the two storylines come together, Staveley puts together some interesting twists and turns that led the plot to a somewhat unpredictable ending, and leaving us with an ending that makes it clear that this was just the beginning. Together, each of the stories come together by the novel's final act, with Valyn's training and arc leading up to help assist Kaden as he comes to some final moments of realization. By the end, however, it's clear that Adare's story cements both brothers together and provides context for their personal journeys. It's also at the end where the story's title becomes an important bit of information: the three last weapons of the late emperor.
This feels to me as though it's an important point to the entire book: how are people used? Everybody in the book plays their part, but two of the most notable characters display sociopathic tendencies. There's one of the Ketteral leaches, Balendin (the magical users in this world, who draw upon various 'wells' for their power), who's ability to leach off of emotions that play a pivotal role throughout, while Annick, a fellow Ketteral, is decidedly emotionless throughout the story as she goes about her job as a sniper. Furthermore, there's Kaden's training, through which he works to strip away emotion from the tasks before him, training for which he'll be putting to use later on, when he eventually assumes the Unhewn Throne. There's other examples as well: Humans are just the latest occupants to the world; they were preceded by the Csestriim, a long-lived, sociopathic race that fall millennia ago following a series of long wars with their children, humans.
Throughout the story, there's an argument between a single character's agency and the larger story surrounding them. The plot that took the Emperor had its own pawns, expertly maneuvering forces around the Royal family. At the same time, there's opposing forces aiding them. As the two male heirs find themselves fighting for their lives, they really face an emotional test that comes up with an ambiguous outcome. While this is happening, Adare discovers that each of their personal training and experiences have been calculated, thrown into the fray in an attempt to unhinge the plot. The outcome is unclear: Staveley clearly has more ready to tell us in his next book. What he's shown is an interesting, emotional take on fantasy characters, and it's one that I'll be interesting to see at its end.
The Emperor's Blades is a promising start to a new voice in fantasy, and despite the flaws, I like what Staveley has to say. He's constructed a fantastic and compelling fantasy world and has started an interesting story that rests on the strengths of its characters. He's proven to be an excellent author, and he's set up a compelling narrative. The next entry in the series, The Providence of Fire, is due out in 2015, and I already can't wait to see what happens.