A simple yet effective story, constructed and told by someone confident, if somewhat fresh, in their craft.
The Emperor’s Blades is the first book in Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne.
Epic fantasy often conjures a grandiose litany of tropes such as elves, dwarfs, dragons, complex magical contrivances that baffle the mind, warlords hording unimaginable power, heroes so flawless in their skill, and quests definitive in their end goal. There is nothing wrong with this. It is the world that I have become enamoured with and one day would love to be part of. But sometimes it is nice to find yourself picking up a novel and reading something that, while still riding the upper echelons of epic fantasy, is somewhat more grounded than a lot of the modern counterparts.
Don’t get me wrong, this book is in no way an ode to the realistic grit and noiresque themes that you might find in something like the Black Company. There are Gods that have direct impact on the world, characters who can perform magic, intimations to mythical wars fought amongst immortals. But there is also an element of humanity that runs throughout the veins of the novel, pushed forth in parallel by the narrative path of the story. And it is in this where the true value of this tale became apparent.
The Emperor to the Unhewn Throne has been assassinated. His three children are at risk, though they remain ignorant to the depths of that threat in varying degrees. Kaden, heir to the throne lives amongst the Shin, a group of solitary monks who spend their lives in meditation to reach a conscious state free of emotion. His links to the outside world are non-existent, and he writhes under the brutal tutelage of his new Umial, while at the same time contemplating a new threat that roams the mountains surrounding him. Valyn trains amongst the Kettral, the most adept assassins in the world, readying himself to pass the infamous Hull’s Trial where he will become a fully-fledged member of the throne backed group. Here he uncovers a plot against him and his brother Kaden, while investigating the murder of a prostitute once friendly to the woman he loves. Adare has been studying the intricacies of politics with her father while her brothers have been shipped off and now that the Emperor has been murdered, she finds herself attempting to put his murderer to justice and secure the throne ready for when her brother returns.
The book starts off in excellent style, with a prologue that is brutal, concise and quite disturbing. A man stands before his daughter, disturbed by the abomination of what she and her kind have become; the abomination that is of being able to experience emotion and wither within the husks of their bodies, their lives now mortal. Callously, emotionlessly, the father kills the daughter. This is one of the best openings to a story that I have read in quite some time. My attention was instantly grasped by how blunt it was.
Immediately this notion is put on the backburner, with the links to the actually story apparently non-existent as we are instantly thrust in to the present day where the Emperor has been assassinated. The change, at first, seems to be a bit jolting as the tone quickly deviates. But this serves to keep that opening few pages at the forefront of your memory and constantly makes you guess at the relevance to what is happening now, and proves to be an excellent narrative measure to keep you probing at every thread that Brian Staveley weaves throughout.
Set aside from this mystical opening, we are thrown in to the very human endeavours of each of the characters. Staveley manages to get his point across without spending countless paragraphs depicting the gruesome, affluent gore that surrounds certain situations, which is apparently quite a common trope in a lot of modern fantasy. There is brutality in his words, but they are carried across concisely, with just enough emphasis to highlight the point to the reader. This works very well when we read how Valyn is forged in to an efficient assassin, but behind that skill there is also something innately flawed about him – emotion. Valyn is not portrayed as the best at what he does. There is a more skilled swordsman amongst his peers, he is terrible at demolitions, an average marksman, and he understands that sometimes his decisions are unsound. But amongst all this we see the good behind his actions, we relate to the decisions because they are decisions founded from his intrinsic emotional goodness. He wants to see justice prevail, he wants to prevent bad things from happening, but often against better judgement, he resorts to his baser instinct and fails. You will curse him for his stupidity, scream at his numerous mistakes, but you will forgive him for it is always based on that emotional foundation that we all have.
Where Valyn’s story is intricate, emotionally fuelled, and action packed, Kaden’s is infinitely more subdued. We witness the brutal measure of his training under his new Umial (the fantastic Rampuri Tan – a man who is an exquisite enigma of unerring composure), his growing friendship with other Shin apprentices, and the subtle mystery of the goat killing creature lurking in the mountains. It is in these parts where the pace seems a little off from Brian Staveley. Not too much happens and you often feel like Kaden is far too similar to Valyn in his characteristics. They both strive to attain different goals, but for the majority of the story they just seem to similar, only that Valyn seems to have the majority of the excitement confined within his POV, leaving very little for Kaden to do for the first half of the novel, other than get beaten, remember perfect pictures from his mind and wonder about what is in the mountains.
Yet, while Kaden’s story is cowed at first, it is elevated towards the later chapters and his character starts to become an individual entity, one that the reader can really get behind. The same cannot be said for Adare. Her presence in the book is fleeting, and considering she holds so much of the main threads of the story – such as finding her father’s killer, unravelling the threads of conspiracy, and fighting to maintain her family’s name – she should have been given as equal prominence as her brothers. But if truth be told, I’m glad she wasn’t. Her character, in my opinion, is a massive failure. For someone who trained for many years under the tutelage of her father, who everyone professed as a great Emperor, her behaviour as one of the political heads of the Empire is laughable. She has absolutely no control over her outbursts, which often come across as petulant rather than justified, and then she continues to fail at every political manoeuvre, consistently allowing her enemies to gain the upper hand.
As is the case with a lot of books in this genre, female characters are not given the best arcs, and it is not only Adare that suffers. So many are simply created as an emotional anchor for the male leads, and the amount of main female characters that are prostitutes is quite shocking. This isn’t to say that all the women in the story are so badly depicted, but even the strong characters come across as one dimensional compared to their male counterparts.
This is also an issue with many of the antagonists in the book. They are strong characters, but not particularly well developed. They do bad things for no discernible reason. There’s no troubled back story, no conflict within them. They are just bad and are permitted to continue their obvious badness even though the environment in which they are in should quell it. So many of these antagonists are allowed to continue with their dastardly deeds simply because other characters, bewilderingly, do nothing about it. By far the worst culprit of this is Uninia IV, the Emperor’s assassin. I understood that he has a great following due to being a religious leader, but the Emperor was loved by nearly all his people, yet Uinian still manages to out manoeuvre Adare when his death should have been so easily implemented. Not only this, but he is presented as nothing more than a smarmy snake of a man that no true religious adherent would support. His wry smiles are unsubtle, his obsequiousness is worn so plainly that it destroys the illusion of a crafty villain capable of weaving a complex plot against the throne. The biggest shame of this story is possibly that it currently lacks any compelling villain.
With some minor pacing issues, poor development of the antagonists, and some very lacklustre female characters, this book comes just short of becoming excellent. But that does not mean it isn’t a good read. In fact quite the opposite. It has an intriguing story, especially with what has only been hinted at so far, and some decent characters. This series has the promise of being something special, I just hope that Staveley is able to rectify the issues with a lot of the women in the story, and deliver on the promise set forth by an incredible prologue and give us that villain that we are craving so much.