Monday, 28 April 2014

Book Review: 'The Emperor's Blades' by Brian Staveley.

UK and US covers for 'The Emperor's Blades' by Brian Staveley.
The Good: Nice change from the usual western-medieval setting. An epic start to a new fantasy saga. An ever thickening plot, set in a rich and real world, cast with characters whose stories you don’t just follow but live, too.

The Bad: Would have liked to see more of the Annurian Empire through Adare’s storyline, but this really isn’t criticism but more a curiosity, as I would have liked to discover more about the fully-fleshed world. Kaden’s monk ‘trials’ (as I like to think of them) at times felt more like a reminder of his importance/existence, rather than furthering the plot.

The Ugly Truth: Well deserving of the hype proceeding it, Brian Stavely’s gutsy newcomer ‘The Emperor’s Blades’ doesn’t pull its punches – visceral and break-neck from start to finish. Whilst packing a strong right hook in terms of action and suspense, it’s the subtle knife that slips through your guard as the plot twists again and again.

For Those That Like: Stories in which no-one is safe. Conspiracy and betrayal, clandestine operations, court intrigue, badass monks, and greater powers at war behind it all.

The Emperor is dead.



Heir to the unhewn throne, Kaden, is yet to discover his father’s death. For eight years he has trained under the Shin monks, honing the strength of mind over matter. Isolated from the world, atop the Bone Mountains, Kaden and the other monks are unaware of the events tearing apart the empire. But the monks have threats of their own – an unknown creature stalks the mountains, slaughtering livestock in a way that no natural beast can.

Valyn, Kaden’s brother and second-in-line to the throne, is nearing the end of his Kettral training. Soon Valyn will join the elite Kettral ranks, and lead his own Wing on clandestine operations. But on a routine training exercise he uncovers a conspiracy that threatens not only his brother’s life, but the future of the Empire, too. With enemies lurking in the shadows and betrayers in the midst of the Kettral ranks, it’s down to Valyn to save his brother, that is if he isn’t killed first by the assassins… or his own soldierly training.

Adare, Valyn and Kaden’s sister, appointed Minister of Finance within the Empire, is there to witness the trial of her father’s murderer. The accused is no deadly assassin nor common crook, but the high priest of the Empire’s faith. The ensuing trial questions whether the Annurian Empire should be ruled by a mortal Emperor or the will of a god…

And behind it all greater forces are at play. An enemy lost to the pages of history is about to return, and no matter of mortal quarrel can compare to its power to destroy.

War is coming, and no-one is safe...

Brian Staveley’s debut ‘The Emperor’s Blades’ is armed and dangerous. One of the most highly anticipated releases for Q1 2014, the novel has set the standard high for the rest of the year. A mix of fully-fledged-fantasy and the ‘grit’ that has become a popular staple in recent fantasy works, Staveley sets himself apart with a non-western medieval setting, a new breath of life into tried and tested character archetypes, and a magic system that even a d20 and a pen and paper couldn’t predict (in a good way, of course).

‘The Emperor’s Blades’ tells the story of the titular Emperor’s children following his murder. The story centres around the three main PoV characters, the story told from their experiences, the overarching plot interwoven with their individual journeys. The plot thickens as they ‘come-of-age’ in their separate environments.  Kaden in a monastery under the tutelage of Shin monks, Valyn training on a remote isle to join the ranks of the Kettral elite, and Adare navigating the intricacies of politics and plotting as a Minister of the Empire. The Emperor is dead, murdered by the hand of the High Priest. Conspiracy is afoot, one that threatens the Emperor’s children, and the rule of the Empire itself. Kaden, isolated from the outer world due to the remoteness of the monastery, is unaware of his father’s death, and his own sudden inheritance of the unhewn throne. Valyn uncovers the conspiracy through the last words of a dying man, but if he makes it known then he risks escalating the traitors into early execution of their plan. All the while, Adare is party to the trial of her father’s murderer, fighting for justice and not least a little bitter vengeance.

The characters carry the book. Whilst the overarching theme of ‘something evil this way comes’ is ever present, and alluded to in snippets, it’s fair to say that the debut focuses more on Kaden, Valyn and Adare as they complete their tuition and come into their own.

Kaden’s chapters focus on his pursuit of the vaniate – what the monks call ‘The Empty Mind’. Think = blank canvas. The sub-elements of this include a photographic memory, the ability to see the world from another’s perspective, and to ignore the physical presence of the body and emotion, and remain detached to the world around you whilst still interacting with it. Sounds like some monk-matrix-meditative stuff, but this is nicely interwoven to the plot, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Staveley develops this in the future. Kaden’s chapters also link into the greater evil at play, which might not be evil in the sense of black leathers, eye of newt, and pointy horns, but it still spells doom-and-gloom to the human race all the same.

Valyn’s story, to me, is the most interesting. As a recruit-in-training, we follow him on exercises, and later the trials, required to become a Kettral. The Kettral are an elite group of soldiers, formed of snipers, magic-using leaches, demolitions experts, weapons specialists, and birds with 70ft wingspans (pilots not included with each bird purchase, but required all the same). I’d liken them to squad-based ninja-legionnaires crossed with modern-day marines and paratroopers. From my own experiences I am more than happy to report that Staveley handled the military elements more than adequately, introducing enough black humour, barrack slang, and cussing, without going overboard and boiling it down into over-used stereotypes that only know how to curse colourfully and stab people. Valyn is the one to uncover the conspiracy to kill the Emperor’s heirs, and it’s down to him to save him brother (and sister!) before the traitors take over.

Adare’s involvement is limited to the Imperial Court and City. And I say limited carefully. It’s not a criticism in this book, as her role is to tie-in the trial of the Emperor’s murder, but if there was space for further ‘world building’ then I’d argue it’s her pages. Staveley’s world is rich with unique creations – from the unhewn throne to the Skullsworn assassins and the pantheon of gods – and being set in a non-western medieval backdrop, I’d have liked to see more of this. After all, it’s one of the key differences between this book and the current fantasy-offering in the market e.g. yet another Game of Thrones copy, or Elves, Dwarves and Dark Lords aplenty.

The story is executed with all vigour and excitement of a newblood, and whilst Staveley succumbs to a few rookie ‘stumbles’(I won’t say amateur, as it’s clear he’s put in a lot more effort than some of the professionals), the finished product is a breakneck race to the finish line. It’s by no means a short read, coming in at over 450 pages, but the chapters (particularly Valyn’s) fly by thanks to the author’s calculated pacing.

From what I’ve read, it’s safe to say that ‘The Emperor’s Blades’ has well earned its hype, and its high time that the author be recognised as a rising star in the fantasy field. I for one am looking forward to the second book, as now that the scene is set I want to see where Staveley takes it next.

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