The Emperors Blades – Brian Staveley (Review)

Brian Staveley The Emperor's BladesThe Emperor’s Blades is not a short book, and it is not a standalone book. It is a fantasy epic in the full meaning of that term – it’s a long book, sprawling across a massive world, and its full title is deeply unwieldy. The Emperor’s Blades: Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, Book One. 

I picked it up on a whim, thinking it was a different kind of book entirely (the kindle cover mislead me somewhat – the picture shown here is much more indicative of the actual content). Still though, when I discovered my error, I was not disappointed.

I don’t get round to proper epics much at the moment – I’m still two books behind on A Song of Ice and Fire, I always lose interest around book seven of The Wheel of Time, and so on. I do read such books, and I do enjoy them, but they are always something of a slog to start.

So The Emperor’s Blades was, if not entirely new, at least something of a departure from my recent reading material. I opened it on a plane, and found myself still reading it quite some time later, when I should have been trying to adjust to the time difference.

The Emperor is dead, cut down by an assassin. His heir is far from the capital, living with a secluded order of monks. His other son is training in an equally remote location, aiming to become one of the Empires most elite soldiers. His daughter is a minister in the capital, surrounded by plots and political agitation.

The empire teeters on the brink of chaos, and the new Emperor doesn’t even know his father is dead. As the repercussions of the assassination start to be felt – more assassinations, the build up of hostile troops in the capital, the Emperor’s siblings attempt to do their separate duties – one to find and protect the new ruler, and one to ensure that he still has an empire to rule.

That’s not a great synopsis, but the book doesn’t have just one obvious plot arc. Instead, it starts with an event and shows the ripples spreading out from it, disrupting the already difficult lives of the three main characters. The three plots don’t even start to link up at all for a while, and its a long time before any of the main characters are in the same mountain range as each other, let alone the same room.

That’s something that I don’t really dislike, and it’s a brave choice, flying in the face of the immediacy orthodoxy that fiction appears to be in the grip of. In a culture in which every sentence supposedly should move the plot forwards, it’s nice to read an author who allows sufficient time for world building and establishing situations.

What I’m trying to get across here is that there is no simple one-line explanation that accurately encapsulates the book; it isn’t just a quest story, and it doesn’t all mesh neatly from the get-go. That’s not a criticism in any way, but it does make describing the book harder.

The setting has a different flavour to the mainstream of fantasy – there are hints and parallels, as far as I can make out, from all over Asia, plus a spattering of other influences. Concepts I particularly liked were bird-mounted paratroopers, and the idea of “leeches” – magically-gifted people who draw their power from a well that they keep secret from everyone.

The world has a developed – occasionally too developed – history, one that manages to seem more realistic than most fantasy with a single myth that turns out to be centrally relevant. Instead, the world has history which isn’t totally vital to the plot, but adds flavour well – there is a fine line to walk between irrelevance and too-explicit signposting; The Emperor’s Blades rarely slips.

The book is written from three different perspectives – Kadyn (the heir), Valyn (the soldier) and Adare (the minister). The chapters switch between them, though Kadyn and Valyn take up most of the novel. None of them are poorly done, and all the characters are distinct and developed, but Valyn, I found, was the most interesting; it’s the perspective in which the most happens, for a start – entirely deliberately, Kadyn’s monastic existence is very calm and slow.

This meant that, at points, the book seemed to drag a little, marking time until it could go back to the most active plot line.  It’s a problem that is exacerbated by the initial lack of links between different strands; the prologue, for example, doesn’t really become relevant to the plot in this book, though it will presumably develop in the sequels.

Really, this could be three books – one about a special forces trainee, one about a lone female minister in a fracturing empire, and one about a novice monk preparing against some half-remembered evil. I get that they are all slowly gathering together, and that later books will wrap up strands, consolidate plots and so on, but in this particular book, seen as the first of a series, it still reads as a weakness – it makes the overall book seem a little woolly.

It’s very definitely a book that requires and sets up for sequels – a lot of things will, I am confident, make more sense and reveal full significance in the rest of the series. But it does promise to be a long series; there are a lot of plot hooks and situations to resolve, a lot of characters with competing drives and dreams. It isn’t a quick read, and the sequels are unlikely to be either.

I enjoyed The Emperor’s Blades. There were moments where it was slow going, but the rest of the book is solid. If you want epic fantasy that is more original than the average, then this is a good pick. It isn’t a brief book, and you aren’t going to get a quick cathartic fix, but the characters are distinct, the world is believable, and the plot, so far as I’ve read, promises unfold with interest.

Buy it here.

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