The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy. His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.
Meanwhile, the Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. And Kaden, heir to an empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways – which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he’s learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?
One of the ARCs being given away at World Fantasy last year was Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. I’d seen some talk about it and it looked interesting – epic fantasy is always of interest – so I snagged myself a copy, deciding to save reading it till closer to publication. In the meantime, I’d heard lots of bloggers I respected say good things about the book and I found myself looking forward to starting the book to see whether I’d enjoy it as much as they did. The answer is yes, yes I did.
The book is told through three strands, one for each of the titular Emperor’s children: Kaden, Valyn, and Adare. Kaden is the heir, by dint of his inheriting the imperial fiery eyes and his gender, even though Adare is technically the eldest. All three are very different people, made more so due to the differences in their rearing. Kaden was sent early on to be raised by the Shins, an ascetic order of monks that reveres the Blank God. His world has been limited and bare and his training has been cerebral and one of learning to deny the self. In almost complete opposition to this, Valyn was trained to become part of the Kettral, elite and merciless mercenaries, living a life where survival means winning and where combat and physical strength are key. Valyn was taught to be a leader, to lead a wing and command, while Kaden was to be taught how to be emperor after his time with the monks. Adare was raised at the palace and unlike her brothers she was raised not to lead, but to administer, to become Minister of Finance to the Empire and at the same time, her sex means she’ll never rise above that station; she can’t sit the throne and she has to marry for the good of the Empire, not for love, as is often the case for those of royal descent, especially women.
I liked all of the narrative strands, but Valyn’s was my favourite. I tend to have a weakness for his sort of military training narrative and his story is at once exciting and horrifying. He’s also a very sympathetic character, one who tries to adhere to his beliefs and values in an environment where not all of them are seen as positive. The boys’ sections outweighed Adare’s chapter, though that might be because they are less constrained and in the more action-heavy areas of the narrative. Still even in her smaller number of chapters she becomes a well-rounded character, smart, tough-as-nails, her father’s daughter in many ways and I really liked her as a character. I had a far harder time connecting to Kaden, who at first is rather strange, mostly due the outlook on life that has been ingrained into him by his education with the monks. But he honestly grew on me and by the end of the book I was genuinely rooting for him as well.
I liked the way Staveley treated his women, or rather how he challenged his male characters’ reaction and treatment of women. Most of his female characters have agency, even those who are circumscribed in their actions, such as Adare. While he does at times write from a male gaze, when his characters, especially Valyn, treat their female companions like they might be less competent or more in need of protection due to their sex, they get called on it, more often than not by the women themselves. This happens quite often between Valyn and his best friend Lin, who calls out Valyn and their friends time and again and even gets Valyn to be aware of his behaviour without her prompting. Also Adare breaks out of the mould by not only becoming a Minister in the Emperor’s council, but by demanding justice for her father – loudly, I might add – and taking an active hand in obtaining it when it turns out to be the only way. And she takes the lead in her relationship with Ran il Tornja, something which felt boundary-breaking for a woman in her situation.
All of this is set against the background of a really interesting world. The Emperor’s Blades is epic fantasy by the book, but certainly not by rote. There is a lot that is familiar in the world, but it is done well and in some cases with an interesting twist. I loved the Kettral, both the mercenary company and the giant birds of the same name that serve as their transportation. Staveley creates an interesting religious spectrum, in which the Shin are developed the most clearly and I found their beliefs fascinating, if rather harsh. Similarly, the mystery surrounding the Csestriim and the Nevariim is quite interesting and while the reader is given some history on the former, I hope we’ll learn more about the latter in the future.
The Emperor’s Blades is an interesting and enjoyable start to the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne and if this is only Staveley’s first novel I’m excited to see how he’ll grow into his craft. If you love traditional epic fantasy, but would like to see a more updated version then The Emperor’s Blades is a book you’ll want to read. I am looking forward to reuniting with the siblings and seeing where their story takes them next in the second book The Providence of Fire.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.