The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

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“His brother had already pivoted toward him, drawing that short knife of his, raising it in a quick motion as Balendin started to shout. Valyn met his brother’s eyes, those distant icy flames, as Kaden closed in on him. He doesn’t feel love either, he realized as Kaden hammered the knife down with a savage thrust straight at Valyn’s head, or sorrow, or regret…

Following in my recent theme of books that have been hyped beyond all reasonable expectations, next up is Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. Tipped by many to be the best fantasy book of 2014, the fact that it is Staveley’s debut novel ultimately makes this achievement even more impressive. Unfortunately, this is one novel that I found did not live up to its hype.

There’s a lot going on in this book, so I’ll let the blurb describe the plot for me:

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.

Sounds good, right? And it reads well, too, at least in the beginning. Everyone who’s read the seven preview chapters posted online knows that the book opens brightly, with suspense and mystery, rather than outright action. Indeed, the first quarter is gripping and engaging, pulling you along, and deeper and deeper into the well-crafted world Staveley has created. And then, all of a sudden, the action stops. There are few new developments between then and the final fifth of the book. Everything seems like a repeat of something that has happened before, just in a new place, with new monsters, or with new punishments.

The three characters that are front and center in the blurb—Kaden, Valyn, and Adare—are all very different people, and each with their own roles to play. Honestly, I don’t know why Adare was given equal billing to the two brothers; her role is by far the most minor, and she seemed like an afterthought, what happened when Staveley sought to address the lack of female characters in his book. As for the other two, I rather wish their positions had been reversed. Kaden, as the eldest son and heir to the throne, now lives with a group of monks in a secluded, mountain monastery. His chapters seemed to follow a bit of a formula, which goes like this: “Kaden’s mentor tells him to do something. Kaden does it. His mentor asks him some deep, meaningful questions about the project, which Kaden answers wrong. Kaden is punished.” Despite this, I found I rather liked Kaden as a character. He was relatable and lacked many of the clichéd, annoying traits found in many entitled heirs. Valyn’s story was much more interesting and engaging, as we would hope from the story of someone who is learning to fight using giant birds as steeds. However, I found I did not like Valyn as a character – he was impetuous, rash, and rude. The many insults he endures towards his intelligence often do not seem poorly placed.

The secondary characters are few, which is odd for a novel with such a large scope. This was fine, though, as they seemed to be better than the main POV characters. Kaden’s master, Rampuri Tan, and abbot of the monastery, Scial Nin, were both fantastic characters, different aspects of an interesting and deep religious order. Ran il-Tornja, the only secondary character of note in Adare’s plotline, was far superior to Adare herself – he was charismatic, believable, and engaging. The only exception to this rule was Valyn’s plotline, whose supporting characters (with the notable exception of Annick) were either walking clichés, or horribly bland and boring.

Apart from the complete slackening of the pace for the middle half of the book, the plot seemed to waste its not inconsiderable amount of promise. Adare’s story felt like it would have been better placed in the second book. Kaden’s plotline was boring and repetitive. Valyn’s was interesting, but I wish Staveley had brought forward the Trial a little earlier, and we could have seen Valyn interact with his wing a little more before the climax. In addition, Staveley has an unfortunate tendency to launch into lengthy explanations of his world’s history at any point, no matter the suspense he breaks by doing it. And finally, there’s the terrible way the finale was resolved – a complete Deus Ex Machina.

Overall, The Emperor’s Blades is a book that shows remarkable promise in its first quarter. It is gripping, intriguing, and exciting. Unfortunately, the pace drops off dramatically, and the novel never really makes good on the promise it shows. Some hit-or-miss characters are not enough to rescue the book, and one finishes the book with a regretful sense of what might have been.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

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“War is always an adventure to those who’ve never seen it.”

Rarely have I seen a debut novel hyped as much as Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. Winner of numerous awards (including Amazon’s “Best SFF of 2013”), and receiving glowing reviews from nearly every corner, I’ll admit my expectations were sky high. The book couldn’t possibly be that good, could it?

Well, yes. It could.

Blood Song is the story of Vaelin al Sorna, first introduced as a young man, and already one of the most infamous men in the world. Forced to fight a duel he is expected to lose, he reveals his past to his jailer, a chronicler named Verniers. Vaelin does not tell Verniers his whole story, but he will tell you. Given to an elite group of fighters known as the “Sixth Order” at a young age, Vaelin quickly learns to fight, and to kill. His peers and he form an elite group, setting out to do the King’s bidding wherever it may take them.

First of all, the story is brilliant. The frame story has its own plot, one that is introduced, deepened, and resolved in a fraction of the time spent on Vaelin’s story. The first 250 pages of Blood Song are a school story, a darker, more brutal version of classics like Harry Potter. Think Joe Abercrombie writing The Name of the Wind, and you’ll be almost there. A perfect example of the tone can be found in this exchange, where a student expresses his worries to a master before a test:

“’I’m not sure I can swim that far, Master,’ he stammered, staring down at the dark waters of the river. ‘Then try to drown quietly,’ Sollis said, tipping him over the rail.”

Serving as a lengthy introduction to Vaelin and his friends, the first third of the story never falls into a slow patch, and the high stakes keep a degree of tension running throughout the book. Once Vaelin and his friends “graduate”, the story changes. Things move more slowly (though never too slow), and the focus shifts. Intrigue becomes a primary plot point, with the scheming nature of the King and his daughter’s manipulation taking a central role, as every subsequent action in the book occurs as a result of one of their machinations.

The world building is not elaborate, but it does hint at a deeply layered landscape beneath its blunt, bloody exterior. The prose is similarly lacking any frills, or bells or whistles, but it bears the mark of a master craftsman just the same. Ryan perfectly understands the tone of the book he is writing, and perfectly channels that into his writing. An interesting cross between Rothfuss and Abercrombie, the words flow in a way that is very difficult to do with such a blunt story. And, perhaps most importantly, the battle scenes in Blood Song are fantastic. The action is superb all throughout, Ryan makes sure the conflict is clear and understandable, while still being engaging and dramatic. When a book relies on action scenes as much as this one does, the skill the author has in writing them is paramount to the reader’s enjoyment of the novel. And Ryan absolutely nails it.

The characters may have been the weakest point of the novel, but that doesn’t mean they were poor by any means. Vaelin is an excellent main character, good enough that the reader roots for him, while still being flawed enough that the reader relates to him. He was, however, a bit overpowered. When someone is that good with a sword, just naturally, it begins to raise some questions (see Bilbo dueling a goblin in The Hobbit). An attempt was made to limit his abilities by making him worse at archery and horsemanship than some of his peers, but it never really seems to have much of an effect on the story. The supporting cast was well done, but as a rule I generally wish more had been done with them. Caenis was interesting, but I felt that there were aspects of his personality that were never really explored. He may have been the most interesting of Vaelin’s classmates, but he’s the one we earn the least about. I hope we see more of him in Tower Lord. Barkus and Dentos, though fine characters, were really rather flat and two-dimensional. I kept getting them confused, especially in the beginning, where Ryan dumps a lot of names on you (and Vaelin, to be sure), and I just never really figured out what made some of them different from each other. The story lacks a traditional villain (at least until the closing pages), but those that serve as temporary villains do so with aplomb; both the King and Princess are deliciously manipulative without being “evil”, or even “bad”. And then, of course, there’s my favorite member of the supporting cast: Nortah. A different take on the Ambrose Jakis or Draco Malfoy character, his character arc is the most dynamic in the story, including far more growth and character development than Ambrose and Draco combined.

All that said, the book was not flawless. I often felt as though the book was hinting towards certain occurrences or events that were either too subtle or just went over my head. There was a brief period directly after the end of schooling where the pacing dropped off a bit, but it was fixed almost immediately. And I didn’t entirely love the ending—it resolved well enough, but I still had many unanswered questions that I feel weren’t answered, and may never be answered, as Vaelin showed no sign of feeling motivated to seek out any more. The biggest problem I had was the Blood Song itself. It was never really explained, but instead of seeming mysterious and enigmatic, it came across as more of a Deus Ex Machina (though not quite that bad). It’s a real shame, because I thought that with a bit more explanation the magic system could be fantastic – perhaps we’ll learn more with Tower Lord.

Overall, a fantastic book that is well deserving of its reputation. A phenomenal story, great characters, and action scenes among the best I’ve ever read more than make up for the few, small flaws in the story. I will be eagerly awaiting the next books in the series!

Final Rating: 9/10