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

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