The Emerald Blade by Steven Kelliher
The Emerald Blade returns readers to the now-familiar corner of the Landkist universe: the Valley, where flame-wielding warriors known as Embers struggle to move forward in the aftermath of the previous book’s dramatic climax. Each of the surviving protagonists has undergone a transformation of sorts (though some more drastic than others), and all are regarded as heroes (though some accept this role more willingly than others).
Any reader with a memory as poor as mine will be relieved to know that the first few chapters of The Emerald Blade do an excellent job not only recapping what happened in Embers, but also clearing up a few areas of confusion about the wider world and its history. The prologue is especially effective, since it marks the first time we really see events from the opposite side of the conflict; T’Alon Rane is, in fact, one of the book’s strongest POVs.
However, despite the effectiveness of the initial chapters, the strong beginning is let down somewhat by the inclusion of too many exposition scenes. The author spends a lot of time having his characters recap events amongst themselves; as such, dialogue sometimes feels repetitive. This is particularly noticeable when POV characters who are experiencing the same things feature back-to-back in adjacent chapters. The plot itself also suffers from a couple of frustrating false starts. Embers’ beginning divided readers when it threw us into the action and left us to figure things out as we went along. I was one of the few who actually relished the fast-paced intro, therefore I found myself longing for Blade to get off the ground once I was reacquainted with the characters and what they were planning next.
On a much more positive note, I can declare The Emerald Blade to be an enjoyably sensory experience. Readers will, at varying points in the story, witness the steam rising from the cracks in an Ember’s armour, shiver as the damp ground-mist seeps into their boots, hear the creak of branches just beyond sight and feel the prickle on the back of the neck that lets you know you’re being hunted. The settings are particularly evocative; the atmosphere upon entering the Emerald Road reminded me of Dombâng in Brian Staveley’s Skullsworn. The setting functions as an integral part of the story, and is practically an antagonist in its own right (as if Kole and company didn’t have enough enemies already!)
This pervading sense of threat is enhanced by Kelliher’s descriptions, which – as mentioned above – invoke a variety of senses. Above all else, though, the author uses visual imagery to convey vividly spectacular battles that are as realistic as they are breathtaking. Once he hits his stride, Kelliher’s action scenes are flawlessly tense and exciting, and at times it feels as though we’re watching a fight in slow motion with every punch and every spray of saliva rendered in HD for our viewing pleasure.
The rest of the characters’ experiences are rendered in just as much detail. This creates a sense of solidarity between the reader and the characters as we accompany them throughout their toils, day and night, rain or shine. However, a downside of this is that some chapters feel repetitive, which draws the reader’s attention to recurring instances of over-description. I won’t lie: I found myself at times frustrated by ‘microtelling’ that had me skipping over exposition scenes in which characters repeatedly blush, shift their gaze to the horizon, or draw their brows together into a frown. Similarly to my points about pacing in the paragraphs above, these scenes cause the story to lose impetus, dragging the reader back into stilted details when all they really want to know is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, DAMMIT?!
That level of investment in the story is precisely what made me so keen to push through the uneven sections; to stick with the characters (no matter how winding their path) and learn what comes next. And if there’s one thing The Emerald Blade does better than Valley of Embers, it’s making us care about its characters. Speaking for myself, I struggled to connect with any of the protagonists in Kelliher’s debut. However, from the very beginning of Blade I felt myself sympathising with them – particularly Linn, who really comes into her own. Kole is much more uncertain of his own abilities and his place in the world after the events of Embers (which makes him far more engaging than the angry, mopy tween of the first book), while T’Alon Rane adds an entirely new and exciting perspective on the main conflict.
This is one of many ways in which The Emerald Blade is darker than its predecessor, though never gratuitously so. Kelliher is not one for needless gore – or for gore at all, really. He has the skill to sketch enough of the details that our own minds are more than capable of filling in the (occasionally gruesome) blanks. The more we learn about the Landkist, too, the more we realise that the various powers gifted by the earth are much more complicated – and dangerous – than the simple wielding of elemental swords. The characters, too, shift slightly away from the light, with their minds conflicted and their motivations nebulous. Valley of Embers gave us darkness vs. fire, death vs. life, evil vs. good. The Emerald Blade gives us shadows and mist, and power that can be used for whatever cause its wielder sees fit to champion.
For all their varying shades of grey, Kelliher writes his characters in colours so strikingly different that they’re virtually impossible to measure against the same moral scale. In a similar way, the secondary characters – including the Emerald Blade himself, of course, as well as Baas Taldis, Brega Cohr, and Shadow – make for a shifting but colourful backdrop that complements and accentuates those who burn brightest.
Oh! And speaking of colourfulness . . . you might remember that Fantasy-Faction hosted the cover reveal for The Emerald Blade. It’s (in my humble opinion) even more striking than the cover for Valley of Embers, and I like to think that the boldness of style and solidness of colours represents a more confident and focused writer; one who knows exactly where he’s going, is keen to improve, and is optimistic in his vision for the future of his series. In short, The Emerald Blade represents the next step in a writer’s journey. It isn’t perfect; nor should it be. But it shows a clear learning curve, as well as a willingness to experiment and take risks with the story. There’s a certain freedom in that. Whether it works for you or not, the author’s determination to remain loyal to his own vision is admirable.
In short, The Emerald Blade is a shining example of the drawbacks and the benefits of self-publishing. Rest assured that the latter are much more strongly represented than the former! Kelliher’s second Landkist novel is an improvement on the first in almost every way, and I now wait eagerly for the third. Now go, and give this series a try if you haven’t already.