The Emperor’s Blades is the tale of two brothers (and a sister, but I’ll get into that later), the sons of the Emperor of Annur. Kaden, the heir to the throne, was sent to a remote monastery to learn the teachings of the Blank God while his younger brother Valyn was sent to join the Kettral, the Empire’s elite military unit. When the Emperor is murdered from within both suddenly find themselves facing more than a little bit of trouble. While Kaden and Valyn face their own threats their sister Adare does her best to hold the Empire together from within its ruling council. The basic structure of The Emperor’s Blades, particularly in how it deals with a geographically scattered ruling family looking to hold their Empire together reminded me a bit of David Anthony Durham’s splendid Acacia series.
Staveley has a keen eye for action and a willingness to delve into the dark and grim that makes The Emperor’s Blades an absolute blast to read. Where Kaden’s parts of the story remind me of traditional epic fantasy, Valyn’s trials in training to join the Kettral reads like excellent military fantasy. Staveley strikes a wonderful balance between these two sections using the visceral excitement of Valyn’s martial challenges to play a wonderful counter beat to the more cerebral nature of Kaden’s narrative. There is a fantastic and engaging dichotomy between those two narratives that really makes the pages fly by.
Unfortunately, where things fall apart is with Adare and the political aspects of the novel which don’t quite hold up to the rest. In truth, Adare, who has an important post in the government but is denied the regency due to being a woman, feels a bit tacked on. Adare’s perspective feels like a wasted opportunity. I don’t have any actual statistics to back this up but it certainly feels like Kaden and Valyn’s narrative take up a larger percentage of The Emperor’s Blades than Adare’s do. The style and pacing of Adare’s perspective mean that switching from either of her brothers to her perspective is jarring and makes her chapters feel like a chore. Adare’s chapters are particularly trying since her character doesn’t seem to be nearly as well-rounded as that of her brothers. She holds the prominent financial position in the Empire’s ruling council but we don’t ever really seem to see her do her job. Where both Kaden and Valyn have opportunities to aptly demonstrate the things they have learned during their respective training Adare doesn’t seem to do more than seethe at her fathers death and plot revenge.
Stavely has created an interesting world in The Emperor’s Blades. I was particularly enamored with the customs and practices of the Kettral and sort of Eastern-themed philosophy of the Blank God was also fascinating. Given the remote locations of both Kaden and Valyn this leaves comparatively little place to actually explore the Empire that Kaden is set to inherit. This is where Adare’s chapters are likely intended to help and while they do reveal some details of the Annur Empire particularly the tension between the entrenched nobility and the religious elite (who primarily hold sway over the common folk). Intentionally or not Adare’s chapters, and some of Kaden’s, reveal that the Annur Empire is not the most benevolent of kingdoms a notion that sort of deadens the reader’s support for Kaden and Valyn. However, Stavely takes pains to demonstrate the characters of of both Kaden and Valyn and at the very least both seem less dedicated to the notion of empire than they do towards their love of one another. Of course there is more to the Annur throne than simply political power and Kaden’s education by the monks of the Blank God reveal deeper and more troubling machinations from outside the bounds of Empire.
The Emperor’s Blades is an excellent debut novel that while familiar in some respects and stumbling in others makes up for its shortcomings with a blistering narrative and keen sense of both action and wonder. While I was disappointed in Adare’s narrative and characterization I maintain a hope (particularly given the revelations later in the novel) that we will see those elements improve. Stavely barely scratches the surface on the more magical elements of his world and while it is somewhat intrinisic to the nature of his world he doesn’t lay out the details too neatly. There is more to be discovered; a sentiment that I think is a worthwhile accomplishment not only in a debut novel but in the first novel of a series. Brian Stavely is one to watch and if you enjoy epic fantasy I think that The Emperor’s Blades is definitely worth checking out.