As epic fantasies so often do The Emperor’s Blades, a debut novel from Brian Stavely, begins with the death of a ruler, and continues to follow the fall-out as it consumes his realm and children. This pattern should be familiar to readers of everything from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, to David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy. In this case, Staveley begins with three children — two male heirs, Kaden and Valyn, and a daughter suited to rule in all ways but her gender, Adare. The boys are gone from court, sent away by their father to learn at the feet of other masters, both to groom them for rule and protect them from the court’s conspiracies. Kaden, first in line for the throne, is a monk. Not the sexy D&D-type, with fists of stone, but rather a contemplative ascetic seeking to understand the world from a different perspective. Valyn lives a different life among the Kettral, the Empire’s special forces. Most of the Staveley’s narrative is concerned with the brothers’ conflicts: Kaden to realize a state of mind his father sent him to learn, and Valyn to find acceptance in an elite brotherhood. Of course, the impact of their father’s death resonates throughout their stories, but only in an overarching way. The Emperor’s Blades is very much a coming of age story, and less about the epic struggle for the Unhewn Throne and the fate of the world.
It’s a complaint that can be lodged against the entire novel: Staveley telling the reader one thing, showing another, and ultimately providing a climax supported by neither.
It’s no coincidence that I haven’t mentioned the third sibling yet. Adare, daughter and eldest child of the dead emperor, is given only a fraction of the page time that her brothers receive. Conferred as Minister of Finance on her father’s death, Adare finds herself in the middle of a political firestorm as her father’s assassin seeks absolution in his faith. Among the three points of view, hers is most significant in relation to the overall arc of the coming epic confrontation. She is on the front lines of what will become the series’ focus once Kaden and Valyn resolve their own personal struggles to become the men their father wished them to be. Sadly, Adare’s capability is often impeached by committing impetuous and, occasionally, stupid acts for seemingly no other reason than furthering Staveley’s plot. It’s a complaint that can be lodged against the entire novel: Staveley telling the reader one thing, showing another, and ultimately providing a climax supported by neither. I don’t want to delve too deeply into this, as it would be rife with spoilers, but suffice to say, there are many conveniences in the story that lighten the author’s construction load. The result is a brisker but less satisfying narrative than similar epic fantasies.
Like Brandon Sanderson in Mistborn, or Patrick Rothfuss in Name of the Wind, Staveley’s work has the capacity to indulge reader speculation.
Putting these criticisms aside for a moment, as I’m willing to attribute them to debut author pitfalls, The Emperor’s Blades is mostly thrilling. It has interesting characters, (even if the most interesting of them is given short shrift, but I digress), and a magic system that invites reader investment. It’s the latter that may elevate Staveley’s novel above the sea of sameness. Like Brandon Sanderson in Mistborn, or Patrick Rothfuss in Name of the Wind, Staveley’s work has the capacity to indulge reader speculation.
In the World of Warcraft community, it’s called theory-crafting: the mathematical analysis of game mechanics to discover the best strategies and tactics to maximize player effectiveness. With this in mind, I’ve noticed that many of the most successful epic fantasies indulge their own form of theory-crafting. All of the aforementioned work of Rothfuss and Sanderson, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle all invite the reader to speculate about the best configuration of the magic system. How would the world react if I did X, or Y, or X+Y? The Emperor’s Blade attempts the same trick, but twists it slightly by creating a magic system is simple in mechanics, but complex in its plot implications.
Without knowing the source of a leech’s power, the reader [becomes] a participant in the deduction, not merely a spectator, and it works fantastically well.
Magic is scorned and persecuted in Staveley’s world, not unlike the Salem witch trials in our own. Leeches, as the magic users in The Emperor’s Blades are known, can warp reality by pulling from their well, a random and unknown source of power that’s unique to each magic user. A well could be something as rare as diamond, as pervasive as sunlight, or as esoteric as love. Without knowing the source of a leech’s power, the reader is forced to look for clues, to deduct through the text how they gain their power, and how they might apply it against the various conflicts, large and small, within the novel’s plot. Although it isn’t quite as engaging as, say, the physical consistency of Sanderson’s Allomancy, Staveley’s magic system has a deep-seated charm all its own. The reader becomes a participant in the deduction, not merely a spectator, and it works fantastically well.
The Emperor’s Blades has a great deal to speak in its favor, and I enjoyed my time with it. Though the novel falls into several plot and character holes that invite the proverbial truck to drive through, Staveley impresses by immersing the reader in his rich world building, providing unconventional situations for conventional characters, and pulling it all together in a structure comfortable for genre fans. What it doesn’t do, however, is anything new. Brian Staveley’s debut is not the next big thing, but another solid addition to the last big thing – another epic fantasy trying to fill the Wheel of Time sized hole in your heart.