The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley
March 15, 2017 by Leslie Anderson
What does political intrigue, brutal murder, and a bully all have in common? As you might expect, they all play heavily in The Emperor’s Blades. Aside from that, they’re all elements of fiction that I generally dislike. And yet I liked The Emperor’s Blades. Not despite these elements, but rather, for the most part, because of them.
What I Liked
The World: I’ll admit that during the first 50 pages or so, I found the exposition a touch tedious. At some point, though, the world almost began to feel like a character I was desperate to learn more about. History, politics, and theology – all things that normally feel slow – were suddenly the reason I'd stay up late to read just one more chapter.
The magic system: I tend to enjoy magic systems, but I found the one in The Emperor’s Blades especially interesting and thought-provoking.
The Twists: There was a thing I hated. Hated. Seriously hated. And I would have sworn it was irredeemable. And then—wham—the author threw a twist at us, and I was gobsmacked. The thing I hated was more than redeemed. It was brilliant! (Click to reveal spoiler)
Mean Mentors: Kaden, the heir to the throne, is a monk out in the hinterlands. His mentor, Tam, whips him bloody for minor mistakes and consistently insults him. He starts out utterly unlikable. And even though Tam doesn’t really change as a character (he never softens in his approach to Kaden), by the end of the book I liked him a lot. I’m not entirely sure how Stavely did it. I almost want to re-read to see where things start to change.
What I Didn’t Like
Plot holes: Kaden is sent to this monastery to learn something imperative to successfully running the country when he ascends to the throne. Valyn, the next in line, instead becomes a soldier.
This is the sort of world where a bad flu could easily kill someone. Why wouldn’t Kaden and Valyn both study for whatever it is that’s necessary to be a successful ruler? As I pondered this question, the answer that came to me was that having both of them there would probably have negatively impacted Kaden’s study. I’d have liked this concept to be more explicitly state, though. For example, the abbot could have said, “One only truly learns to let go when one is free of all that is familiar. Valyn’s presence here would have made your training impossible.”
I’d still raise my brow at the second-in-line to the throne regularly being bound and chucked into the ocean to see if he has the wits to untie himself and survive, but at the least there’d be a good reason why he wasn’t training to be Kaden’s backup.
Stupid Characters: Valyn is training among some of the baddest soldiers in the world. They’re supposed to be more than brutal, though. They’re supposed to be cunning. And as a wing-commander-in-training, Vayln is supposed to be able to lead. His decision-making will mean life or death for the people under him.
And yet he’s relentlessly bad at critical thinking. For a civilian character, it would be annoying, but acceptable. Characters in books tend to be stupid. It’s how an author can impart information to the reader that the character themselves haven’t picked up on yet. It’s also an engagement tactic: did you guess right? May as well read the next chapter and find out.
It doesn't work with Valyn, though. The intrigue swirling around Valyn is the same sort of trouble he’ll have to face as the leader of a military troupe. His inability to read what’s going on is in direct contradiction to his supposed success as a soldier. It’s hard to believe in him.
The POV balance: Kaden and Valyn have roughly an equal amount of screen time. Then there’s Adare, their sister, who maybe gets three or four short chapters. When she came on screen, I struggled to remember what was up with her. I was invested in Kaden and Valyn, and I mostly just wanted to get back to them.
Body descriptions: All the women’s bodies were described in great detail. This isn’t inherently bothersome to me. Young men are going to think sexually about women. Most of the book is told from the POV of young men. Ergo, I’m neither surprised nor bothered by descriptions of boobs.
The problem was that, even in moments of terror and violence, we still get these sexualized descriptions. At one point a young woman is curled into a ball sobbing uncontrollably, and the POV character is staring at her backside and thinking about how the pulled fabric or her silken dress accentuates certain ... aspects of her.
Is this POV character significantly more heartless than I thought? Or is the scene unrealistic? Either way, it distanced me from the book and took my sympathy for the POV character down a few notches.
Also, since there is a female POV, I feel like it’s only fair to have her mentally think about men in as much detail as her brothers think about women. She does crush on a guy’s looks, but her thoughts are strictly about how the cut of his shirt accentuates his muscles. Why not take her gaze a little lower?
The brutality: I feel like the book would be stronger without some of the on-screen deaths. After a certain point the deaths felt like they lacked purpose. I prefer happy stories, though, so this might be user preference.
The Emperor’s Blades had a definite grip to it. I wanted to learn more about the world, the insidious plots happening just out of sight, and how various pieces of information fit together. Somehow, even though most of the characters are far too gruff and practically unlovable, I wanted them to succeed and find happiness. Along the way I was delighted by Stavely’s brilliant twists and the ease with which he paints a picture.
This is the sort of book you need to be patient with, though. I feel like most books that skirt the edges of the grim-dark sub-genre tend to move quickly. The Emperor’s Blades does not follow that speed. Most of the book is gathering information, getting to know the characters, and learning more about the world.
My only real complaint is that now I’m in the middle of two series of tremendously long books. Do I read The Wise Man’s Fear or The Providence of Fire next?