Brian Staveley prevails where many authors do not: he’s successfully written a fast-paced story in which not all that much actually happens. And I enjoyed the heck out of it. The story plays itself out like a triple murder mystery. The Emperor Sanlitun himself is murdered, which spurs the eldest daughter Adare (newly appointed to Minister) to investigate firsthand the allegations leveled against a certain mysterious priest. The eldest son, Kaden (heir to the throne), is currently in a monastery on the other side of the world without any knowledge of his father’s death, but he too finds the body of a dead goat – its head ripped off its neck, and the brains removed. The youngest son, Valyn, is being trained as a kettral – an elite soldier skilled in all manners of weaponry and warfare – and he too gets entangled in the mystery of a dead girl. Little do they know, they are all in danger. And an even greater threat is instituted mid-way through the read which will surely come into effect later in the story.
The Emperor’s Blades is Staveley’s debut novel, making its successes all the more special. He does a fine job of taking monk mentality from Bhuddism, Taoism, and Shinto, and much of the vibe we get from the novel is very ancient-chinese-dynastical in approach. This blend of thinking and putting the reader in a certain mindset is mesmerizing. Yet I don’t think the characters are necessarily ‘asian’ aside from the culture and setting. It feels very much like Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the Kettral training scenes and weaponry remind me of the scenes and weapons used in Attack on Titan. Whether these helped influence Staveley’s writing, I cannot say.
My favorite of the siblings, Kaden, is in a way the most helpless (or so we are led to believe), as he’s completely shut off from civilization in a Shin monastery in the Ashk’lan mountains. And it’s his character that I feel I can relate to best. He’s gentle, kind, but thick-headed at times. And he’s a joy to read. His training provides a solid coming of age story, despite the rigors and trials he has to face due to his new umial (master). He must learn the discipline of the Shin monks to unlock an ancient power within himself.
Valyn has, arguably, the strongest story arc of the emperor’s three children; certainly the most action-heavy. It’s his story that also holds the most heartbreak. Being around warriors like himself, trained in the art of killing, this shouldn’t come as any surprise, but Stavely doesn’t hold back. Valyn is hot-headed, quick to anger, and particularly foul-mouthed, but one can’t read this book without falling for the guy. He’s always two steps behind and you learn to love and hate his quirks, his ineptitudes, but most importantly his compassion. Compassion is something he carries much of throughout the novel, and it doesn’t always aid him.
Adare, eldest daughter to the fallen emperor, is present for very little of the book sadly. This is The Emperor’s Blades most flagrant mistake – minimizing her presence in the novel actually makes her seem less important. But she too is one of the emperor’s three blades. I think she had about 5 chapters (out of over 50). And strangely, its her storyline that threads Valyn and Kaden’s together so nicely. It’s just a shame all we got to see of her was her whiny, infantile, and vengeful sides.
The novel does an excellent job of making Lovecraftian oddities seem the norm. The best example are the godlike birds that the Kettral soldiers ride, which can hold 5 people comfortably. This works so well because Stavely doesn’t spend forever telling us why this is weird, nor that it is wholly normal or natural – he just tells us what the creatures are used for and this nonchalant storytelling adds much to the books elegance.
The magic systems are also very practical, and believable within the order and confines of the world. Leeches are born and are treated similarly to the mutant race in X-Men. They are essentially freaks of nature, a next evolutionary step, one in which (with the help of the ‘wells’ that they can individually draw their power from) they can warp reality around them. Even the training the monks give Kaden seems to be a subtle, new type of magic, one you don’t realize even exists until you stop and think about what he’s being trained to accomplish, and how this will help him in the long run.
The Emperor’s Blades is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. Cannot wait to begin the second book, which dropped earlier in the year.