The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley
I have to admit, I very nearly didn’t make it past the first 100 pages of The Emperor’s Blades. An intriguing prologue and opening chapter were quickly followed by pages and pages of fantasy clichés: a corrupt religious organisation threatening to overthrow the kingdom, two royal male protagonists (who are just normal, humble guys, honestly!), a soldier-in-training (in the most elite fighting force in the world, of course), a long-extinct race of evil immortals that are clearly going to be revealed not to be extinct, etc., etc.
And then you have the plethora of ridiculously generic fantasy names. Seriously, the majority of the character names sound like they were sourced from an RPG name generator: in the first fifty pages or so we have Micijah Ut, Crenchan Xaw, Ran il Tornja, Heqet, Meshkent, Bilkun Hellel, Tan’is, Csestriim, Ashk’lan, Uinian, Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian, Akiil, Valyn, and many more. On top of this you have the term “’Kent-kissing” at least twenty eight times on every page, which gets kind of annoying. To clarify: ‘Kent’ is an abbreviation of the god ‘Ashkent’, and ‘Kent-kissing’ is used as a curse, as in the phrase “if I see that ‘Kent-kissing term used one more time in this dialogue I’m going to hurl this book through the window”.
Anyway, I’d positioned myself next to the window (ready for the next ‘Kent-kissing use of the term that shall not be spoken), when something happened.
It got better.
That’s it, really. I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why, but after around 100 pages or so I really started to get interested. I cared a lot about what was going to happen with Valyn, I cared almost as much about what was happening to Kaden, and even managed to care a tiny bit about what was going on with Adare.
The story has three central protagonists, all of whom are the children of the emperor and all of whom appear to be around eighteen years old. Valyn is the eldest, and has spent eight years training as an elite mercenary; Kaden is the royal heir (although he is younger, he has the ‘fiery eyes’ that indicate the right to rule) and has spent eight years as a peaceful monk; and Adare has spent her life at court, and will never be allowed to rule despite also having golden eyes. The whole setup reminded me of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia in that it follows the separate lives of three siblings and explores how their radically different upbringings has changed them, for better or worse. While it was good to know immediately how all the main characters were connected, I felt it would have been a bit more interesting to explore this further by making at least one of them at least a little bit morally ambiguous; as it is, they’re all pretty much perfect. Kaden is disciplined, Valyn is brave and Adare is (sort of) intelligent, and they’re all presented as being completely loyal and heroic in their own ways. I kept waiting for the conflict that would come, either when they reunited or when one of them lost their way or was led astray, but it never happened, and I felt that made the characters sort of flat where they were otherwise fairly well-defined.
My other main gripe was that Adare, the only female protagonist, is severely underemphasized (she only has around three or four chapters in total), and is not very relatable, or even particularly sympathetic. It’s made clear from the beginning that she’s frustrated about her position in society – as a woman, she is not allowed to rule the kingdom, despite being the only royal personage present in the capital at the time, and someone else has been appointed to rule until her brother returns. However, her father, the emperor, did make her Minister of Finance when he died, to the chagrin of most of the more traditionalist society. This storyline had some great potential: I thought, brilliant, he’s going to show how she struggles against the patriarchal society by showing how strong and competent she is at doing a ‘man’s’ job and change everyone’s minds! But no: we see absolutely no evidence of her actually doing her job, despite it seeming like such a big deal, and instead she acts frustratingly how everyone expects her to act. She gets over-emotional at meetings, she throws herself carelessly into an affair with a man she barely knows – the man who is ruling in her stead, no less! – and, worst of all, she takes the painfully over-obvious circumstances of her father’s murder at face value, then acts prematurely and recklessly to avenge him without bothering to try and investigate what really happened. Her position at court – royal heir yet not allowed to rule, possessed of dangerous knowledge but not yet in a position to do anything about it – was not played out to full effect, and as such I never really felt invested in her chapters.
Believe it or not, there was way more to like about this book than not: the pacing is fairly strong once it gets going, the settings and scenes are really vivid, and there’s a whole tonne of action. There are some really great scenes and images in there, including a brilliant sequence underground in a slarn lair, and the subplots and mysteries bring a nice variety and change of pace to the story. It’s easier to talk about things you don’t like than things you do, which is why so much of this review seems so critical, but I honestly enjoyed reading this book. I even stayed up until 1.30am just to finish it – and on a ‘Kent-kissing work night, too!