Book Review: The Emperor's Blades

Book Review: The Emperor's Blades

I have mixed feelings on The Emperor's Blades. I want to love it, I really do - but I can't bring myself to get past "like." On paper, this book looks like a perfect fit for my tastes, but in practice I found it somewhat lacking.

The book focuses on the three children of the recently deceased Emperor of Annur. The eldest son and heir to the throne, Kaden, is training as a monk in some remote mountains and hasn't seen his family in years. The other son, Valyn, is also training, but with an elite fighting force called the Kettral. Meanwhile, their sister Adare is in the capital struggling to bring their father's killer to justice.

The book's description leads you to believe that these three stories will be told in equal parts, but that is entirely not the case. Adare gets short-changed in a major way, and yet her story moves the fastest and is by far the most interesting since she is in direct confrontation with the emperor's killer. Adare has far fewer chapters than either of her brothers, both of whose stories (but Kaden's in particular) drag on for pages without much progress.

Kaden's story takes forever to get moving, and for many chapters it's a struggle to see what the point of his monastic training is. The reveal is pretty good - that Kaden is there to learn a particular set of skills that he needs to be emperor in case an almost-forgotten and half-mythic race comes roaring back to attack the present. Yet I couldn't really bring myself to like Kaden, and slogged through his chapters only because I needed to in order to get back to Adare and Valyn.

Speaking of which, Valyn was at least interesting to read even if his plot moved slowly. The training sequences were good reading, and the big test to officially become a member of the Kettral was probably the single best sequence in the book. Born without the divine eyes of his father and two siblings, Valyn has the most interesting character arc as he discovers his own special abilities and function.

But, much like Pierce Brown in Red Rising, Brian Staveley seems to struggle with writing female characters that have agency. Most of the female characters in the book primarily function as sexual interests for other characters (and that doesn't exclude Adare). I was so hopeful for Lin, only to have the rug yanked out from underneath me halfway through. I'll have to peg my hopes on Gwenna for the next one, though Staveley has made me very leery.

On the plus side, Staveley has created a fantastic magical system that is wonderfully unique. His magicians are "leeches" - they each have a "well" from which they draw all their power. If they are separated from their well, they have no power. On top of that, leeches are reviled in Annur, so the leech characters in the Kettral jealously guard the knowledge of their wells and actively try to obfuscate where they get their power. It's a really delightful concept that I savored throughout the book.

Despite that, the world feels...small. Maybe it's because each character is so ensconced in their own setting and never really leaves, but overall the world felt very generic. I didn't get the sense of strong worldbuilding that I like in a good fantasy novel. Many things were unclear or confusing, and we did next to no traveling. 

As I said, I wanted to love this book. It's got great plot elements that I really like, with a magic system unlike any I've seen and good political intrigue. On the other hand, there are major issues with the female characters (including undercutting of Adare), one of the main characters is pretty boring, and the world doesn't have the expansive wonder it should.

I'm interested enough to read the second book; I've already purchased it and put it on my list. Many of these problems can be fixed easily, and I'm happy to give Staveley the chance to win me over. I just wish I could have rated this one higher - it had such potential.

Grade: 3.5/5

Memorable Quote:

Valyn stumbled to his feet, snatched up the rapidly dwindling torch, and wrenched a short blade from its sheath. Slarn didn’t make that sort of sound. The bellow came again, a hideous roar of rage and hunger that echoed off the hard stone walls, filling Valyn’s brain, reverberating inside his skull. He forced his legs into motion, lurched toward the nearest passageway a dozen paces distant. Again the roar. Closer this time. Valyn risked a glance over his shoulder and glimpsed, in the distant recess of the cavern, in the fickle penumbra of the torch, a monster carved straight from the bloody dark of nightmare: scales, talons, teeth, all black as smoke steel, a dozen unnatural joints flexing in the shadow. And the size of it...It made the slarn he’d fought in the tunnels above look like puppies.
The king, he realized, dread lurching in his stomach.
— The Emperor's Blades, pg. 232-233
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