The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley – Book Review [Bane of Kings]
Milo, aka “Bane of Kings”, covers the debut epic fantasy novel by Brian Staveley, entitled The Emperor’s Blades, and published by Tor Books, it serves as the first installment in the Chronicle of the Unhwen Throne.
“A very promising fantasy debut that impresses with a confident narrative, however it suffers from poorly written female characters and plenty of repetition and a tendency to over explain certain elements. Despite this though, The Emperor’s Blades for the most part, is actually an incredibly solid read.” ~Bane of Kings, The Founding Fields
When the emperor of Annur is murdered, his children must fight to uncover the conspiracy—and the ancient enemy—that effected his death.
Kaden, the heir apparent, was for eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, where he learned the inscrutable discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power which Kaden must master before it’s too late. When an imperial delegation arrives to usher him back to the capital for his coronation, he has learned just enough to realize that they are not what they seem—and enough, perhaps, to successfully fight back.
Meanwhile, in the capital, his sister Adare, master politician and Minister of Finance, struggles against the religious conspiracy that seems to be responsible for the emperor’s murder. Amid murky politics, she’s determined to have justice—but she may be condemning the wrong man.
Their brother Valyn is struggling to stay alive. He knew his training to join the Kettral— deadly warriors who fly massive birds into battle—would be arduous. But after a number of strange apparent accidents, and the last desperate warning of a dying guard, he’s convinced his father’s murderers are trying to kill him, and then his brother. He must escape north to warn Kaden—if he can first survive the brutal final test of the Kettral.
Another year, another epic fantasy debut. Some have been successful and others have been a disappointment, but Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, the first book in the Chronicle of the Unhwen Throne series, is a mixture of both worlds. On one hand, it has a great plot with an enthralling narrative that will really hook you in. It’s compelling, and the world is well developed with some mostly good characters. But nothing is perfect though and The Emperor’s Blades actually slips up in multiple areas such as its treatment of female characters and its use of repetition.
Most fantasy books that we’ve seen have started with the death of a King/Emperor/leading Monarch and this book picks up the paces, focusing on his children who are intent on uncovering the conspiracy. You get Valyn, a aspiring warrior of the Kettral, who is probably the most likable of the three siblings. There’s also Kaden, sequestered for eight years in a mountain monastery in order to learn the discipline that he needs to become the next Emperor as well as keep him hidden from the enemy. And there’s Adare, who is the sister of both Valyn and Kaden and gets the least amount of pagetime in the book that spends most of its focus looking at the struggles of Valyn and Kaden, and as a result she comes across as the least developed character of the lot.
However, there are problems, namely when it comes to the competency of the lead characters, Valyn and Adare in particular. Yes, they may not waste time doing what many fantasy novels struggle to avoid, having the characters whine and angst for most of the novel doing pretty much nothing else, because they at least get the job done, working hard to see it through. However, the competency is where the biggest issue is with the principal leads – Valyn lacks the ability to make important decisions, and he also suffers from the fact that he’s not a great team leader – something that you’d expect a character who has years of training as one to be good at. The other culprit is Adare, and what is frustrating is that in the few pages that she gets – she isn’t able to put her political skills to good use, unable to control her impulsiveness when it comes to speaking in public. Like with Valyn, Adare is experienced and highly schooled, or at least that’s what we’re told, but we don’t really see much proof to back it up. It’s a case of telling and not showing.
It seems for every bad thing about The Emperor’s Blades though is that there is something to enjoy about it. Staveley’s world building is very strong – richley detailed and you get a good sense of what’s going on – the book doesn’t struggle in the establishing of the scene – you’re thrust right into a fully-realised world that you can tell has been developed beforehand rather than just made up on the spot, as Staveley goes deeper into the world in one book than many fantasy writers do in a whole series, and whilst yes it does mean that the wordcount is long, it’s balanced by the fact that the pace is pretty quick. There aren’t any moments where you want to skip a few pages ahead because parts of the book has become too boring – it’s engrossing and highly captivating reading as a result.
And it isn’t long before we’re back at a negative element again. One of the biggest problems, if not the biggest in The Emperor’s Blades is its handling of female characters, and this is where it will be a make or break for the reader – some will enjoy the book regardless but others will be completely turned off by it.The only two women who are mildly tolerable are viewed with scorn and suspicion by the respective narrators, whilst the rest are treated either as damsels in distress or people to have sex with. It’s a vital flaw that prevents The Emperor’s Blades from reaching the four-star count or higher, which is a real shame as if there had been a few more developed female characters the book could have easily been one of the better novels of the year given its quality in other areas and this is something that any future books in the series need to turn around.
There’s nothing new brought to the table in terms of originality, and crucially, despite its many flaws – The Emperor’s Blades still manages to be mostly well written with confidence and has all the ingredients to create a novel that will be enjoyed by a great many. However, if you want strongly developed female characters and don’t mind large amounts of repetition, then this book isn’t going to be for you.