As usual am late to the party – The Emperor’s Blades released early this year and was touted to be among the best debuts in this genre for the year. A lot of marketing push by TOR ensured that this book was top of the recall across the Internet world. The sample chapters 1-7 helped.
But ultimately, pushing aside the marketing-hype, it is the solid writing and a near-familiar epic fantasy story wrapped in layers of intrigue and subtle magic given face by three (Ahem, two actually!) endearing protagonists with their intense personal character evolution arc is what keeps the book afloat. It’s top-notch fantasy writing – an empire at risk from the machinations of something ancient and vast and the political coup that results in the assassination of the emperor leaving the fate in the hands of his three children. David Anthony Durham anyone?
But the similarities end right there. Brian Staveley’s world is sprawling, brutal and dark – and the first book that sets up the pieces for an intriguingly complex bloody follow-up gives us more than an eyeful into this world. A vast empire stretched over two continents with savages gathering up in the east borders, political imbroglio and sinister plots involving ancient races, Gods old and new, a deeply-thought out uber-cool fantasy-zen-philosophy. And Kettrals. giant black birds used for military operations by a set of elite soldier-group. Mouth-watering prospect, right?
The story-telling is flat-out entertaining with a pace that never lets up and hurtles you along as you follow the lives of the three different children ( probably the wrong word – as they are in their late teens or early youth and in no ways behave like YA should!) in three different corners of the world. Adare, the eldest of the three cannot sit on the UnHewn Throne as she is not male. However, the closest to her father, Adare is the key to closing out the conspiracy theory as she is the closest to the eye of the storm, right inside the Dawn Palace. However (and am echoing an general complaint that has sprouted the world over and am sure Brian’s making amends for the second book, especially with that fantastically mind-blowing reveal!!) with a comparatively much shorter focus and limited plot-wheels-moving, Adare is almost a wasted character.
But Brian truly kicks ass with the other two protagonists, Kaden and Valyn. Kaden, heir to the throne is an acolyte at the far-off Ash’kalan Bone Mountains – a cruel inhospitable place where the mountain crag cats are not the only predator the Shin monks venerating the Blank God have to afraid of. While the initial few chapters get you the gist of the “nothingness” that should envelope a Shin monk’s life, you’re confused as to why a future emperor should be leading an austere monk’s life training to shovel mud, build clay-pots and watch the goats graze. Hang in there. Brian wrings together a mystical tapestry that weaves together history, Gods and magic in a neat methodical manner that will mesmerize and blow you away. His interactions with Akiil and Pater, the two other acolytes there make for some entertaining read.
Valyn. Ah Valyn. Brian truly lets himself go with Valyn. While Kaden’s is a restricted life living amongst the discipline as imposed by the monks, Brian gets Valyn to be the one who experiences the most of life. Sword-fighting, explosions, intensely brutal trainings, an almost girl-friend, friends and enemies in equal measure and people called Leaches who can access magic through different “wells” – iron, sea, animals. I found him easily the most enjoyable point of view in terms of pure action and kick-ass’ery. A Kettral soldier in training on the remote Quirin islands, Valyn gets the most part of grim, brutal kent-kissing knuckle-bruising action sequences naturally. But apart from the furious training accidents that could go awry and life-threateningly so, Valyn’s POV gives us a bunch of elite black-ops soldiers with their gallows-humor. It’s a grey world with little left to cheer the people up but characters like Laith, Gwenna and even Talal with their sharp-as-steel banter bring a much needed levity to the grim proceedings.
So much for the goodness of an epic fantasy tale that delves us back to the form we are used to and still love. Comfort reading – couched in entertaining story-telling, making the most of tropes we can identify with, giving us a complex intrigue political plot.
I know there are the detractors out there – who cry foul at Brian’s treatment of women – namely his objectification of them as means to end for the swashbuckling heroes of the tale or relegated to being an important cog in the wheel, a cog nevertheless, to get the overall plot moving or the laziness of a world built by spraying random terms around (“Urghuls” who are savages baying for blood at the borders, Vested from the Romsdal Mountains, Basc and the Iron Sea, Tsa’avien Karamalan and jungle tribes of the Waist) that mean nothing to the reader. I agree in principle with all of them. I hold the same grudge against Brian. I got some more in terms of how certain characters react to situations. Valyn training to be a wing-commander sometimes is a lost puppy blanching in the face of hard executive decisions and disorderly conduct from his Wing. Kaden takes too long to understand his goals. And then suddenly in the space of a few minutes, seems to have mastered arcane powers of the mind. Adare, well the less said of her, the better.
But all things said and done, hats off for having given us super-cool Winged Avengers in the Kettral, the Slarn - monsters carved straight from the bloody dark of our nightmares, the awesomely cool concept of vaniate and Blank God, a new way to cuss (Shael-sworn Kent-kissing foulness!) and lots more – Ultimately a well-imagined tale rife with violence and Machiavellian scheming that hits all the right notes.
So I’m sticking around to see what happens next. Three stars for the Emperor’s Blades.