After reading fantasy for most of my life, I’ve seen more than a few “Next Big Thing” come along. Some of those hyped novels and series have lived up to the tile, but more than a few have crumbled under the expectations. At least, in my eyes they did. And so when I kept seeing people rave about Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, I was a bit skeptical, fearing another letdown if I let myself get sucked into the frenzy. Well, after finally breaking down and reading it, I now realize all that waiting and doubting was a huge mistake, because this is the real deal in epic fantasy; the Next Big Thing in the genre; the series I can see myself eagerly following for years to come!
The Emperor’s Blades follows along behind three of the Emperor’s children: Kaden (the heir), Valyn (the soldier), and Adare (the politician). Each chapters shining the spotlight on one or the other in turn, highlighting their unique struggles, as they are on the edge of maturity yet still trapped in their childhood roles. Sure, there is a bit of resentment of their duties and future roles as their father’s heirs, but their stories are definitely not young adult angst-fests or full-fledged “coming-of-age” tales, but rather a situation where the protagonists just happen to be young adults.
As the heir, one would expect Kaden’s story to be centered on court life and political machinations, but Mr. Staveley sidesteps that tired narrative device – instead placing the future Emperor in a monastery on the fringes of civilization. His thoughts and concerns more on news from the outside world and not being beaten by his master for yet another failure in his monastic training than royal ambitions.
Valyn, on the other hand, leads an exciting life as a “special forces”-type warrior. His training and the infighting of his fellow cadets turns ugly early and often, as he attempts to become one of the most feared soldiers in the world. If there is truly a “coming-of-age” narrative in the book, I’d point at Valyn’s chapters, because there is a love interest, tough choices, and some emotional turmoil from an unexpected lose; all of which means Valyn displays more angst than his siblings.
The final “Blade” in this trio is Adare. This tough, intelligent young woman is knee-deep in political turmoil. As the only child of the Emperor still in the capital, she is quickly engulfed by an upheaval in the government, using her position as a member of the royal cabinet to not only weather the storm but dish out her own punishment to those who have done her wrong. This embroils her in an ugly and very compelling showdown with a powerful religious leader and an alliance with a seemingly friendly politician.
All in all, every one of these siblings is a likable, strong, intelligent, and interesting character; each well-rounded, complex and fully capable of carrying their part of the story. Valyn definitely gets more page time, followed closely by Kaden, but even Adare, in her limited appearances, is very interesting, making a reader long for more time to spend tagging along behind her. So, while many times multiple points of view are distracting in an epic fantasy or have interesting and uninteresting parts, all three of these hold their own, making the story a pleasure to read from beginning to end.
Naturally, the other character in any epic fantasy is the world building, and Brian Staveley unveils a vibrant, living, and breathing fantasy wonderland in this book. Asian-tinged with sizable dollops of magic, the Annurain world is slowly revealed through the organic teachings of the older characters in the narrative, not through massive info dumps or long “Council of Elrond” like dialogue. And while the depth and breadth of the history and lore are substantial and the magic palpable, Mr. Staveley does a wonderful job of keeping it all just beyond reach, hinting at even more amazing things waiting right around the corner, promising to let you in on the next big secret if you merely stay the course and follow along behind these three characters, who are themselves slowly untangling the mysteries which you yourself long to know.
As for the villains, they are numerous and unexpected. No all powerful and completely obvious Sauron-like caricatures here. Nope, each of our young stars deal with their own very different enemies. Whether that be arrogant fellow cadets for Valyn or mysterious creatures for Kaden or powerful high priests for Adare, Mr. Staveley crafts each one differently, shading them in unique ways, so that our Blades are never confronted with the same situation as their sibling a few chapters before. And when the conclusion to the novel finally rolls around, the unveiling of exactly who and what the real villains are and what they are doing might just surprise you.
Like I said, this is a book I really fell in love with. Once I became engrossed in the story, I could not stop reading. The characters, the world, the grittiness, and the fast-paced plots held my attention, causing me to stop looking at the clock as I desperately mined this narrative for the answers for all the answers to the questions my mind kept creating. Nope, I didn’t get on this bandwagon at the beginning, but now I intend to ride it as far as Mr. Staveley will take me, because Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne is the Next Big Thing out there in my opinion, one which has room for a few more fans if you’d like to jump on next to me and take a fantastic ride.
I received this book for free from Tor Books in return for a fair and unbiased review. The thoughts you have read are mine alone.