Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Emperor's Blades Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Brian Staveley
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: The Unhewn Throne Book One
Pages: 496

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Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades is a well written debut, but it’s also got a number of character development issues, creativity issues, and a redundant, unbalanced, and derivative plot.  Despite these problems, I do see an audience for this series, and that audience is the casual fantasy fan who hasn’t read too deeply into the genre.  For the people out there that have read a lot of fantasy, you will find a lot of overly familiar fantasy characterizations and plot devices.  When it was all said and done, I felt like I had read a new book that I had read dozens of times before.

The three children of Emperor Annur, who was recently killed, are scattered across the empire. Kaden the eldest son, and heir, is training to become a monk in a secluded monastery.  He must help the monastery which is being terrorized by an unknown creature of terrible power, and he must discover some of the longest kept secrets that the monastery has guarded, secrets that will be essential to his role as Emperor of the Unhewn Throne. Valyn is the second son, and he is being trained to become one of the elite Kettral soldiers that fly on giant hawks.  He learns early on of his father’s demise at the hands of assassins, but he must complete his training before he attempts to find his brother whom is likely the next target.  Annur’s daughter Adare is left at the capitol as Minister of Finance where she must discover her father’s murderer and dispense justice.

The biggest issue the book faced was with its three main characters, all of whom are stupid.  I don’t mean stupid as in I don’t like them – which I don’t like them – but I mean stupid as in relation to their intellectual abilities.  You have Adare who’s dumb, Kaden who’s dumber, and Valyn who’s so dumb that I’m left wondering how the author forgot to explain this character’s mental handicap?

The balancing of the characters narration time doesn’t help character development.  Adare narrates about 5% of the time, Kaden about 35% of the time, and Valyn about 60% of the time.  That means readers are forced into hearing the perspective of the stupidest character the most.  Adare feels more like a caricature than an actual person. She makes a few dumb decisions in the early going of the book, but towards the end it looks like she’s learned from her mistakes, earning a few triumphs along the way.  Then her final chapter happens.  She makes the most stupid nonsensical decision you could possibly make.  Considering her political position and recent success, this is a decision made that’s incredibly common with poorly written female characters, and one that’ll make you want to slam your face into a wall …. over and over again.

Kaden gets some development time, but a lot of the secondary characters surrounding him don’t, which again is due to the lack of narration time.  Besides learning the dark secrets and histories of the Empire he will be governing soon, Kaden is tasked with learning patience and learning how to “see.”  By learning how to “see” they’re talking about learning how to form conclusions about all of the information that’s there and isn’t there.  This is Kaden’s learning arc, and by the end of the book, he is tested at three separate times, in three crucial situations with demonstrating all he’s learned in this regard.  He fails every time.  As a reader why even get behind someone who fails to learn crucial information?

No character is worse then Valyn in regards to learning. While training to be Kettral, Valyn hopes to not only become an elite soldier, but he wishes to command a Kettral Wing.  Valyn’s got hopeless hero syndrome.  Everything he tries to do is noble, he comes across as unflinchingly good and unflawed … except for his intellectual capabilities which the other characters that surround him have to constantly point out.  This character has a lot of dumb moments, but none compare to the stupidity he shows during the long awaited final confrontation he takes part in.  It literally hurts to read.

I’m alright with characters that have limited mental capabilities, but in a fantasy book that emphasizes real world consequences for real world decisions, these characters will absolutely need to pay for their stupidity… especially when these characters are as well connected and have has much power as they do.  This never happens, and the good ol’ “good conquers all,” fantasy trope rears its ugly head in more ways then one.  Having an intellectually challenged character in a story is rare but it can be done well.  Look no further then Martin’s Cersei Lannister. She’s an idiot, and although it doesn’t appear that way, by the end of A Feast For Crows it really can’t be disputed.  What Martin does well though is he makes her pay appropriately for being stupid, she reaps what she sews, and that’s something that happens to none of the characters in The Emperor’s Blades.

The plot is very redundant.  There are three stories and they’re all the same: coming of age.  Adare must come of age politically, Valyn must do it physically, and Kaden must do it spiritually. There’s not a whole lot different between these three arcs, the characters all pretty much grow up in the same class system, and they are all becoming adults.  I’m reminded of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy in this regard.  The four children of a noble family are spread across an empire after their father the king is assassinated.  Durham’s story (especially in the first book) works due to all the differences he’s able to incorporate into each character’s coming of age.  Whether it’s the class system, culture, or unique personalities surrounding them, each of those coming of age stories felt different and the end result was a book that was a lot more entertaining to read.

Originality is oftentimes lacking in the book.  Valyn has to pass the trials to become a Kettral.  His trial, which is two parts, demonstrates this perfectly.  The first part is like an intense Spartan Race, except the characters have to eat rats at certain points.  It’s not that I don’t feel the protagonists are being challenged enough, it’s that this is a fantasy book; come up with something more original then push ups, mud runs, and swimming.  The second part is a little better which see’s the cadets entering a cave to find a spider egg that will cure them from the poison they’ll be inflicted with.  A lot of the tests characters face, feel like your stereotypical fantasy training exercises.  Since they occupy so much page space, I found myself wanting to read something different … often.

Some aspects of the book are done well.  A lot of the secondary characters in Valyn’s story are enjoyable, mainly because they rip Valyn and his stupidity.  The Kettral birds which are more like giant transports then typical winged fantasy beasts is a nice change of pace.  However, moments don’t trump entire sections of storytelling issues.  This was not the book for me, others might enjoy it, but I personally can’t recommend it.

Score: 5.0

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