Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor’s Blades

Book One of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne

by Brian Staveley

Fantasy | 569 Pages | Published by Tor in 2014

| Rating |

Conspiracy. Murder. Treachery. In this debut fantasy from Brian Staveley the intricacies of empire, the loyalty between family, friends and comrades, and the human spirit are pushed to breaking point in pursuit of truth, vengeance and the unknown. Staveley has crafted a compelling narrative which twists and turns through dangerous lands and treasonous plots. With incredible, fluid detail, The Emperor’s Blades is a stunningly addictive debut which captures both the heart and the imagination.

The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again…

The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must prepare to unmask a conspiracy. His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. And after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can act, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.

The Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. Lastly Kaden, heir to the empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways, which Kaden must master to unlock ancient powers. But when an imperial delegation arrives, has he learnt enough to keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?

With cover art worthy of the Old Gods themselves, the first in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne opens up a rich world of sumptuous palaces, bleak mountains and treacherous islands. As Emperor Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian falls to an assassin’s blade, the fate of an empire rests on the heirs to the Malkeenian line – Kaden, heir apparent and acolyte to the Shin Monks; Valyn, cadet of the elite Kettral wing; and Adare, Royal Princess and Chief Minister of Finance of the Annurian Empire.

As suspicious accidents, cruel deaths and nightmarish creatures haunt the Malkeenian heirs; mind, body and spirit are pushed to breaking point through a series of gruelling punishments, impossible tasks and questionable loyalties. As treason spreads in the heart of Annur, Adare’s home has little distinction between palace and prison; and with only a matter of time before Kaden becomes the assassin’s next victim, Valyn must find the strength to survive Hull’s Trial and find a way off the Qirin Islands… before family and empire are all but lost.

Worlds apart, the lives of the three heirs to the Malkeenian line divides the novel into three perilous locations. The harsh and unforgiving Bone Mountains, home to the Shin monks of Ashk’lan, where acolytes seek to unlock long hidden powers through strength and stillness of body and mind; The dangerous Qirin Islands, a haven for the criminal underbelly and training grounds of the Kettral, an elite military wing famed for their stealth, deception, brute strength and speed; and the capital of the Empire, Annur, as sumptuous as it is treacherous, where the military, ministers and priests vie for power.

The Emperor’s Blades succeeds in detailing these locations through a wealth of history, back story and the intricacies of culture and religion, which all play a pivotal role in underpinning both the narrative and its character. But while the intrigues of court in the heart of Annur and the strange powers which reveal themselves amongst the Shin monks are an integral and exciting element of the story, the grit and spirit of the novel, for me, really comes across amongst the Kettral of the Qirin Islands. The hardship of training, the (sometimes grudging) camaraderie,  and the ever present danger build edge-of-the-seat tension and make for an exhilarating read.

Yet while the worldbuilding in The Emperor’s Blades truly makes for a rich and expansive novel, and the writing rapts all attention, the real strength throughout the narrative is the characterisation, in particular that of the protagonists. The children of Sanliitun hui’Malkeenian are as different as the locations they’ve grown up in, but each has a wilfulness and strength of character that endears the reader to them and had me championing all three throughout.

Adare, surrounded by those she cannot tell from friend or foe, is clever and calculating but as a princess and a woman must constantly prove her worth to ensure her position is not lost. Valyn, trained by the most elite warriors of the empire, must undergo gruelling physical tests while seeking out those who would betray him  from amongst his own sword-brothers. Kaden, who lives a secluded life under the tutelage – and frequent punishment – of the Shin monks, is innocent to much of the scheming and treachery which plagues his siblings but, as rightful Emperor, faces the most danger of all.

These three characters are the focal point from which loyalty and betrayal, and strength and weakness radiate; characters which, as a reader, I found utterly captivating. This richly detailed novel, which maintains a pace reminiscent of action novels and which consistently draws you back in, has become one of my favourite reads of the past few years. This is a blade wielding, heart pounding and tear jerking triumph, and my investment in Staveley’s creation remains wholeheartedly assured.

The Emperor’s Blades is a fast-paced, exhilarating read whose characters exhibit great depth and realism, whose world is dangerous, beautiful and delightfully complex, and whose writing is simply stunning. I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on its sequel, The Providence of Fire.

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