It took me five days to read The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley. For close to three days I was engaged with Staveley’s world building, the measured progression of the plot, and the development of the novel’s three main characters – the Emperor’s daughter, Adare, and his two sons, Kaden and Valyn.
Just like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, The Emperor’s Blades kicks off with the death of the title character – the Emperor of Annur. But unlike the Goblin Emperor and Half a King, rather than focus on the next in line to the throne, Staveley splits the narrative between the Emperor’s three children. And while Adare and Valyn are aware that their father has been assassinated, Kaden, the next in line to the throne and far away from home, has no idea that his father is dead. So, thankfully, we don’t get the now cliched and commonplace angst and reluctance of a young man faced with power he’s not ready for.
As I said, the narrative is split between the three siblings. Following her father’s death, Adare becomes the Minister of Finance and finds herself head deep in the conspiracy and the political machinations behind her father’s death. In contrast Kaden and Valyn have been away from home for eight years. Valyn has trained to be a Kettral, this fantasy world’s equivalent of a Navy Seal. Hundreds of miles away, Kaden is studying at a Shin Monastery, an ascetic lifestyle, where the monks devote themselves to the Blank God.
At least to begin with it’s all decent enough stuff, even if it is a bit generic. Valyn’s training follows a familiar course – he is faced with an increasing number of dangerous and deadly trials only to command a team of his own that he struggles to manage due to conflicting personalities. On the other hand, Kaden is required to explore the deep and inscrutable mysteries of the Shin and their faith. What elevates it above the generic is some nice world building – there are suggestions that humans come from another world – and the overall mystery surrounding the Emperor’s death and the forces moving against his children.
But there are issues and they become more obvious around the halfway mark. Unlike her brothers, Adare barely features in the novel. She appears in 5 out of the 50 chapters or about 10% of the novel. And it’s a crying shame because her story, dealing with the political conspiracy at home is far more interesting than the adventures of both her brothers. This is a woman in a man’s world trying to make her mark after the sudden death of her father. The fact that she can stand up to the pressure, and in a fantastic scene toward the end of the book, face off against the enemy, is a credit to her character. I wanted more Adare and yet Valyn and Kaden’s story take primacy. Reflecting on it further, it seems an odd decision on the part of the Staveley and his editor to structure the novel so that the boys get more exposure than the girl. I’m certain Adare will play a greater role in the next book, but why compress her story in this opening novel? I mean this book is meant to be about the three siblings so why don’t they share the story-load? Why focus so much on Kaden and especially Valyn whose stories follow a very familiar and generic path?
And then there’s the death of (spoiler) Ha Lin. Like Valyn she’s training to be a Kettral. They’ve become close friends over the years, with a suggestion that their relationship might become something more intimate. And yet, halfway through the book she is brutally murdered during the ultimate trial that determines who will be a Kettral. I’ve never used the term before, but Ha Lin’s death is an example of “fridging” at its worst. Especially since her death allows Valyn to become a ball of angst, anger, tears and revenge. At that point I stopped finding Valyn story compelling as his entire character became wrapped up in the savage death of his close friend.
And yes, violence toward women is prevalent throughout the book. There’s no rape – thank God – but the word “whore” is mentioned so often your eyes slide over the term, and, as you come to expect from grimdark fiction like this, those very same whores are entirely expendable, one of them savagely murdered for the sake of the plot.
By the end of it all I was skimming the last few pages, my interest only piqued when Adare appears in the penultimate chapter. Any engagement I had with the novel was lost as The Emperor’s Blades becomes just another gritty fantasy novel where women are treated poorly and where most of the focus is on the exploits of the men.