“Talking round and round a point was like wearing lace into battle.”
Around January, the SFF community exploded over the most hyped debut of 2014, The Emperor’s Blades. It was quoted to be “amazing” and “a favorite.” I, naturally, walked into this book with a hint of trepidation a month later. And unfortunately, all the praise damned it for me. The expectations were too high. But that’s not why it failed. The Emperor’s Blades has a few fundamental flaws that are easy to overlook if you’re immersed in the story. I wasn’t, so every minute I was left to languish over the text, my inner critic grew, and Staveley’s rating shrunk.
The epic fantasy starts off pretty good. Our protagonist, Kaden something-or-other-with-a-random-apostrophe finds out that the goat he’s been tracking for days has died on him. Decapitated, in fact. Well, after cementing the picture in his mind, he heads back to the monastery. There, he finds out that his teacher is no longer his teacher. Sudden and unexpected change follows, which should be the tagline of this book.But then it traipses into cliché: the Emperor dies, and we experience a little bit of fallout. It barely even reaches Kaden’s side of the world, and only manages to shake the outer layer of his brother, Valyn, before the man is carted off for training to be an elite special ops soldier, a Kettral. He goes through the most abuse, and falls into the same plot trap of his brother: repeated dangers. Most notably, physical violence.
When done a few times for significance, throwing your pupil into a hole for a week to suffer is a great exercise. When the author does it to both brothers, it becomes annoying. And the physical and mental abuse continues on every page. I’m usually a fan of this kind of character development (it builds character, anyone?) but it was the sheer repetition that drug me out of the story. (And not just when dealing with lessons; the information that’s relayed to us multiple times over and over again can become grating.) I understand Staveley is trying to write a personal coming of age tale, but this is not the way to do it. Maybe with one POV, but not two.
“He paused before remembering to add his sister’s name to opening lines.”
Now I make a point to introduce the third sibling, Adare. I could leave it like that, seeing as she receives about that much page time in the book.
See, when I first read a few of the critiques for this book, Adare’s lack of involvement struck me as a lot of feminist rants. But after reading the book, they are more than justified to hammer home this problem. If anything, Adare is an embarrassment as a POV. She has roughly five chapters. The rest of this 500 page book is split about evenly between the two brothers. Even worse than that, Adare was by far the most interesting character with the most interesting setting. She could be stupid at times, but she had the most potential.
Aside from Adare, there were a few characters that teetered on interesting. The leach Talal comes to mind first, followed by Valyn’s best friend, Ha Lin. Kaden’s thrown into the mix, if only because his brother is an insufferable, impulsive animal that tries too hard to be hard when it should show through in his actions and trials. Also, he and his brother are too quick to think everything is a conspiracy. I call it plot progression; some might call it paranoia. Whatever. The rest of the cast is caricatures that exist with only one or two traits. The hot-headed redhead. The small and silent archer. The talkative best friend. The stoic and all-knowing, mysterious teacher. If Staveley wanted a character story, he needed to try a little harder.
Like the mediocre characters, the world-building was an illusion. There’s a glossary tacked on at the end. Sadly, this only works when there’s too much world-building. When you do it to make up for the name drops here, the small history scenes there, and the random info-dump in the middle of this action, it doesn’t do its job. The only Asian connotations are the names and, to a lesser extent, our travels with Adare in the capital. The monastery felt like any random church set in the middle of nowhere with a tiny bit of Buddhism and nihilism thrown in for good measure. The Eyerie and its surrounding areas felt more like your standard medieval fantasy fare than anything else. Staveley’s biggest mistake is that he doesn’t provide enough details to truly make the world come alive.
And I don’t mean in the Kent-kissing, ‘Shael spawned dialogue. I mean in the culture, in the people, in their way of life.
“‘You might be an Emperor’s son, but you can’t stuff the sand back in the hourglass.’”
Another minor gripe deals with Adare’s chapters. I’m tired of this pre-feminist society that‘s used to garner sympathy for the women. They’re always painted black and white. They’re cheap, lazy things for conflict, and I’m tired of them in genre fiction. It helps drum up a social injustice that would be better solved with equality in books rather than fingernail depth.
Criticisms aside, the biggest asset Staveley has going for his debut is accessibility. This is a simple read, grounded in strong, if sometimes predictable, plotting, even if the characters are weak. It’s a light story that has just enough excitement to appeal to the masses. I can see why it was so well received. The action is tight, and the writing is sparse. But not even the amazing magic system (which is the story’s hallmark) can cover its pitfalls.
At the end of the day, Brian Staveley’s debut, The Emperor’s Blades, is a fun read that’s just another average fantasy novel to add to the pile. It does about as much experiment as the title. It doesn’t do anything new, and it doesn’t provide much depth. It suffers from too much build-up, and not enough pay-off. It’s not the best debut of 2014; probably not even an honorable mention.
“‘Emptiness exists only when something else has been gouged away.’”
*I was given this ARC for my honest review.*