(Quick preface: I originally started writing this post a couple months back, just after finishing the book, but lacked the time to properly put together the entire post. Don’t think my thoughts have changed much at all, and hopefully I don’t make any dumb mistakes. The review intro is also a bit outdated, but I like it, so I’m leaving it as is.)
The last two months have been filled with new books for me, after a stretch of less reading. The Emperor’s Blades is the latest one I’ve completed and enjoyed. There’s a bit of story behind how I came to read this book. Tor.com recently held an event here in NYC, as they do a couple of times a year, but this time it was also highlighting four debut authors, including Brian Staveley. I had heard a bit about his book, the Emperor’s Blades, and it sounded interesting, but I never got around to picking up a copy. When I saw that he’d be at this event (and that everyone who bought a book would get a tor.com bag with it) I decided to pick it up there, signed of course. I also had the opportunity to talk to him for a bit, which was nice. (I like that I’ve met every author whose books currently sit on my main book shelf, with the exception of the late Robert Jordan.)
So, to the book itself. Again, I’ll break down the review into sections, discussing the setting, characters, plot, and magic (though the magic plays a relatively minor role in this book, only being significantly discussed and used in one plot line).
The three main setting for this book, where each of the main characters spends most, if not all, of their time, are fairly simple. However, this works well for the book, and we do get a great deal of detail about the area, particularly in the sections dealing with Valyn, where we see not only the Kettral training base, but also a good deal of the town nearby, which exists alongside it (and may have grown around the Kettral training area, but I don’t recall for sure if that was the case). In any case, the settings do a great job for the story, and are descriptive enough to feel real, while not trying to be as overly complex and ‘original’ as settings in other books where it is more crucial to the plot. Here the focus is the characters, and the settings seem designed with that in mind, as each has a different sense of isolation, from Kaden’s secluded monastery to Valyn’s island to Adare’s palace (though in the last case its more a feeling of growing political isolation than physical.) Also, the prologue was really interesting, and I can’t wait to see in future installments the exact purpose of it.
Fortunately, the book’s structure makes it easy to discuss the characters, which I think are the strongest aspect of the book while simultaneously being related to the only two significant gripes I have.
To get past the gripes quickly, we’ll start with the ladies. Unfortunately, Adare, sister of the other viewpoint characters, doesn’t really have too much to do. Her plotline is very interesting and I think I see where it’s going, but it’s just unfortunate that she got so little screen time compared to her brothers when she could have made there be a better male/female balance in the book. Again, I think I see where her plotline is going, and what we got of her was great, I just hope the next book gives her more time (and I seem to recall reading an interview with Staveley where he indicated that this would be the case.)
While the lack of stuff for Adare to really do was a minor gripe and can be overlooked with future books in mind, my major gripe has to come next, both because it involves a female character (though not a viewpoint character), and was the only time in the book I found myself upset. I am, of course, talking about Ha Lin and her plotline, both on its own and as it pertains to Valyn. It didn’t take long after being introduced to her for Ha Lin to become one of my favorite characters in the book, if not my favorite (maybe that should have been a sign from the start, as minor characters I term my favorites have bad habits of not making it). I’m not sure, looking back months later, what exactly I liked about her so much, but I suppose it had something to do with her personality and her relationship with Valyn, a relationship that struck me as very real. She served very well as both a friend to Valyn as well as someone to call him out on his BS when it was required, and altogether was a strong, interesting female character while not falling into any of the overused stereotypes. Unfortunately, in the end, she seems to have just been a plot device, and served as a punching bag to Valyn’s plot. Unpleasant things happened to her several times throughout the book, from one of the first fights she and Valyn had against Yurl and Balendin to her last appearance.
It would have been one thing if that lead up to something for her. I have no problem with characters suffering as long as it amount to something for them; both Kaden and Valyn endured plenty of unpleasant stuff throughout the book, but it’s fine as it builds them up. With Lin, she just…dies? Off-screen? Yes, her death was a key in Valyn solving his mystery, and it was kind of foreshadowed (as soon as saw her and Valyn actually starting a romantic relationship, and they said things like “should have done that a long time ago”, and Valyn started to think about the possibility of a future with her, I was like, “Well, crap. Something bad is going to happen, isn’t it?”). Something bad did happen, which led to a really well done argument between her and Valyn, and I relaxed a bit until they made up during the Hull’s Trial. But the next time she appears, she’s dead. I knew something was going to go wrong down in the cave–something had to–but killing of such a great character off-screen…it didn’t sit well with me. Put plain and simple, Ha Lin was fridged (click the TVTropes link at you own risk). http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StuffedIntoTheFridge
I will stress, however, that I was more mad about the event than at the author at that moment, which means it technically passes my criteria for a meaningful character death. The reaction and aftermath was well done, and as mentioned her death did play a role. But I still feel that it was a waste, that there was so much more that could be done a character as strong, smart, and generally interesting as Ha Lin, and the payoff was not worth it. The mystery could’ve been solved another way.
Okay, rant about the death of a minor fictional character over (I should maybe also note that this is the first time I’ve had such a rant since the death of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, so at least Ha Lin is in good company.)
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s segue over to Valyn, easily my favorite out our three viewpoint characters. As to why he’s my favorite, apart from all the Kettral stuff being really cool and his entertaining support characters, I found easiest to sympathize with, as out of all the characters I’ve had experiences closest to his, in a sense. See, the week I read most of this book, I had gone back to my Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts) class after missing several weeks, and I was quite sore from it. Definitely not close to the level of pain all of the Kettral suffer, but enough for me to go, “I feel you, buddy.” (Incidentally, as I’m writing this I’ve missed my class for even longer, so I fully expect pain again upon my return. Full circle!) So, yeah. I’m kind of at a loss as to what to say, as I really just liked everything about Valyn and his plotline, from his struggles with the training, against grade-A a-holes Yurl and Balendin, to his complicated relationship with Ha Lin, and his role in the larger unfolding plot. I guess all there is left to say is that I was always happy to come upon another Valyn section, and I can’t wait to see where he goes in the next book with his new-found black eyes and slarn king powers. I just wish Ha Lin was still alongside him. Okay, okay, I’m done for real this time.
And a quick word re his side characters. There was a nice range of people, which both made their later group dynamic interesting while emphasizing the diversity among the Kettral. And I’m really glad that bastard Yurl died, and I hope Balendin follows suit. (Also, the reveal of Balendin’s power source and his defeat was excellently done.)
Finally, we have Kaden. He had a very interesting plotline, fairly unique among fantasy character plotlines, I feel. In some ways his training was as harsh as Valyn’s, with the caveat being it was more mental than physical. Kaden’s role seems to be tied with the larger, more mystical part of the greater plot, and the Csestriim (I spelled that right without checking!), and the mystery of the mountain creature added more to a plot that could’ve felt a little dragged out by the end, when all the action up on the mountain happened. His supporting cast, while not quite as interesting as Valyn’s, was still interesting, Rampuri Tan and Pyrre in particular. (Regarding Tan, between his having a Csestriim weapon and his name being similar to Tan’is from the prologue, I have theories.) And Pyrre was simply a lot of fun to read, and I’m glad she made it through the book.
Plot, once again, will be fairly short, as covering the characters first took care of most of it. The book’s basic premise was that the emperor was murdered, and his three scattered kids have to both survive their own journeys and find the assassins. Very simple, straightforward, and the book itself delivers on that promise. By the book’s end, Valyn is full Kettral (and perhaps even more), Kaden figured out the vaniate and its ability to let him become emotionless, while Adare has grown wiser to her surroundings and actually found (and possibly is currently killing) the real assassin after several false leads. It was a great way to start, and I expect that the plot will grown more complex over the next books–something more easily done now that we’re somewhat familiar with the world and characters. Just a reminder that simple does not mean overdone and boring.
Again, a shorter section, as magic plays a fairly minor role in the story (that’s assuming the vaniate is not itself technically magical, though it could be.) The leaches have an interesting magic system that rides the line between the more ‘mysterious’ magic a la Tolkien and the more scientific, rule-bound Sandersonian. The lack of clearly defined rules does not hurt it, and it fits within Sanderson’s Laws of Magic in that the magic was not really used a problem solving tool much at all–the only leach we root for is quite weak, and limited in what he can do. It also adds to the sense of danger, as even knowing someone is a leach doesn’t tell the characters much of anything about what they are capable of. I suppose we’ll see in the future how more we learn about it. The only other examples of magic I suppose would be the Csestriim creature, which is suitably creepy and interesting (hope to see more Csestriim stuff in the future), and whatever was done to Pyrre that made her a Skullsowrn. But that too is a more subtle use of magic, which is not central to the plot, so I’d be alright not getting all the answers there.
And I think that about wraps this long in coming review up. An excellent book ,especially considering it’s Staveley’s debut novel. As mentioned, there was one minor complaint, and one huge misstep, but the first I believe will be rectified in the next books, and as for the second, one misstep, even one that led to a big rant, does not ruin the overall product. If we learn anything from the characters in this book, after all, it’s that we do mess up sometimes, and when that happens we need to shake it off and keep moving forward.
Next up here: Something completely different (history related, probably), and another book review! If you follow me on Twitter you can probably guess what it’ll be, as I just finished reading it. Until next time, keep reading (and writing!) I know I will, especially now that the semester is over with.