An entire empire on the brink of ruin, a powerful bloodline hunted to the very ends of the world, an ancient force come again… The premise of The Emperor’s Blades, although familiar in the wide circle of fantasy, is packaged with relatable characters, a deep web of political intrigue, arduous philosophical and military apprenticeships, constant action, interesting world-building, appreciable suspense and best of all, an engaging plot!
Following a prologue set thousands of years in the past where we encounter the mysterious Csestriim, we dive into the brutal continent that is dominated by the vast Annurian Empire. Ruler of this empire, sitting atop the Unhewn Throne, is Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian. As any good ruler would, Emperor Sanlitun has been preparing his three children to take over him after his demise. A demise which arrives sooner than expected; Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian has been assassinated by the powerful leader of a religious faction. What does this mean for the empire? And what does it mean for his children?
Kaden, the rightful heir chosen by Intarra the goddess of Light, lives amongst the secretive Shin monks in their secluded bastion at Ashk’lan. Thousands of leagues away from the empire, Kaden is unknowingly being taught the mysteries of the Blank God and powers which will serve him once he accedes to the throne. The training the young man faces is punitive, grueling and mind-numbingly frustrating… His teachers refuse to show emotions, share relevant knowledge or enlighten him on the outside world’s current state. That is, until a pair of suspicious merchants and a troop of Aedolian soldiers coming traipsing up the mountains bearing news from Annur. Instantly, Kaden’s life is turned around and he finds himself caught in a swirling conspiracy to end his life…
Valyn, on the other hand, has trained since his eighth birthday to become one of the feared and respected Kettral; an elite military force riding giant birds to defend the empire. His training has forged him into an iron-hard soldier, a talented swordsman and a leader. The Kettral live and train and die on the Qirin Islands, isolated from the rest of the world. Here they breed their enormous birds of prey as well as men and women taught a thousand ways to kill. Weeks away from the Kettral’s ultimate trial, which will grant him access to the ranks of the elite, Valyn stumbles upon a dying soldier who warns him of a plot against his family… Is it coincidence that the following weeks are wrought with botched attempts on his life and a series of gruesome murders?
Finally, in the heart of the empire, Adare mourns her father’s death and tries to gain her rightful place in the high circles. Though she is the Minister of Finance and the late emperor’s daughter, she is a woman and it is as lonely as it is dangerous for a woman of her status in the capital. Plots are brought to light, justice is given and vengeance sought. Yet every time Adare believes she has made progress in unveiling the conspiracy of traitors, she finds herself clutching shadows. Who is behind it all? Why do they seek to end the Malkeenian bloodline? And are they after her as well?
Lurking in the darkness, it appears that the long-forgotten and almost mythological Csestriim are watching it all with cold, calculating eyes…
1. The world-building in The Emperor’s Blades is top-notch in relation to fantasy standards. Straddling two continents, the Annurian Empire stretches out across deserts, jungles and forsaken mountains. The borders are rife with tension and violent uprisings, as with all empires. The reader is given glimpses into a world with unlimited potential; Staveley has cleverly prepared this trilogy, setting up future large-scale conflicts, and certainly further series set in the same universe. The mythos is complex and intriguing with the Blank God, the old gods and the young, the whole mixed in with the mysterious Csestriim and Nevariim who walked the earth thousands of years ago. The world is so well crafted that Staveley can virtually develop any plotline to send his characters and the reader across a vast and richly detailed world.
2. Staveley’s writing is also particularly pleasant to read; it reaches the much sought-after balance between efficiency, description and effusive prose. A rare feat in modern fantasy where sprawling door-stoppers often offer no veritable content to speak of. Here, the reader embarks on a journey from the very first page to the very last, rarely pausing to wonder at the use of a word or other. Though there are repetitions (especially concerning invented swear words and the fact that every human looks at the world through ‘hooded eyes’) it is never off-putting. The reader’s ‘hooded’ eyes slip over these with ease. An exceptionally enjoyable read.
3. The learning curve. This is a big one in the realm of fantasy… How much does a writer need to guide a reader through his world? The accepted convention is to assume that readers are not stupid, though this occasionally leads authors to plunge into impossibly complex worlds with no help given at all. In The Emperor’s Blades, once again the balance is found. The first few chapters are puzzling enough to make them challenging without being overly frustrated. On a scale between Harry Potter and The Prince of Nothing, Staveley’s trilogy is nearer to R.S. Bakker’s incredibly detailed world of Ëa and sits right beneath George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – minus the medieval heraldry and complicated human relationships (wink, wink Lannisters).
4. For a debut author in fantasy and in comparison with the hundreds of other new releases, Staveley’s first novel comes with a tightly woven and intriguing plot. The plot holes are few and unimportant, while the main arcs are engaging and full of suspense. Most importantly, he leaves enough room after the conclusion to keep the readers interested in the sequel, A Providence of Fire. If Staveley keeps his rhythm and stamina in the long run, and given his talents in world-building and writing, we could be facing an extremely satisfying series. Maybe several trilogies spanning several time periods and putting into play a vast array of characters; the potential is boundless.
5. Though this may be considered part of world-building, we believed it deserved a mention of its own; the magic system. In Staveley’s universe, a select few human beings called leaches are gifted with strange powers that allow them to warp reality however they will it. The leach’s power waxes and wanes depending on the proximity and strength of their well, the source of their magic. The catch is that a well can be anything; ranging from iron to light to wind to cotton, all the way to human emotions. Emotion leaches are considered to be amongst the most dangerous beings alive, given that their wells are nigh on inexhaustible. A well is a leach’s deepest secret, one that can only be revealed to the most trustworthy companions. With this magic system the possibilities are endless. The down side is that leaches are despised by the entirety of the human race and all its cultures… Oops. Children showing early signs of magic and even extremely powerful adults are hunted relentlessly and put to death in the most horrible ways imaginable.
1. This is understood early on, but must be fully integrated by the reader nevertheless; the main characters are young. Get used to it. End of story. Or beginning of story… Never mind. Valyn and Kaden are, despite their many years of ruthless training with violent soldiers and surprisingly violent monks, both around eighteen years old. This is hard to grasp given the plot, the fact that Kaden is the heir to a massive empire and Valyn is growing up to be a savage, bird-riding murderer. Adare is the oldest of the three siblings and holds a high rank as Minister of Finance. No matter their backgrounds, the three main characters are barely more than teenagers, especially psychologically. And their actions sometimes reek of teenager stupidity and indecision (come on, we’ve all been there). It is frustrating to see two young men that have weathered such arduous training make such strange decisions. The siblings often succumb to their burning emotions and make utter fools of themselves. It can be understandable given their age and the sudden death of their father, but the gap between the lives they have led as heirs to the throne and their immaturity is sometimes too great. Shouldn’t an elite soldier have better decision-making skills and a firmer grasp on his emotions? Or the Minister of Finance, who knows that as a woman she is already looked down upon… Shouldn’t she control her rage instead of showing how vulnerable she is? And Kaden, a boy raised amongst the stoic-as-statues Shin monks since the age of eight… Why is he so frustrated? Why is he so stubborn and rash? In the end, all these emotions are understandable and the character development is more than satisfactory. But the three siblings are extremely similar, if not in training, then at least in character. And some of their reactions may leave the reader stupefied…
2. It is difficult to discuss how derivative a work is in fantasy… The nay-sayers and ‘experts’ will vomit on what they call ‘Tolkien-clones’ without ever realizing that Tolkien himself was preceded by other fantasy authors (Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson or Mervyn Peake) and also copied shamelessly from the Prose Edda and various mythologies. No, if one goes down that particular, dark road, one is as doomed as the Fellowship in Moria… Every work is derivative of some other work. Humans are evolving creatures, unfortunately not blessed with virginal originality. That being said, it is true that some references in The Emperor’s Blades would make veteran fantasy readers cringe… The similarities in geography, names and some of the mythos with other modern works are scattered and frankly, quite flagrant (soldiers defending the empire wearing blacks, really?). The pleasure of reading Staveley’s work is not hindered in the least by these small infidelities and his plot, world and characters remain refreshing in their own.