The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #1)Wow. Does my Goodreads know me or what? Though I guess that’s slightly creepy given some thought…but I am so glad I picked up this recommendation of theirs! It definitely ranks among the top fantasy books I’ve ever read.

Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades begins with the Annurian Emperor dead, murdered by an unknown hand. His children, his blades, are scattered throughout the kingdom. The heir Kaden lives with monks in a remote mountain monastery, unaware of his new position and struggling to learn the teachings of the Blank God. His brother Valyn trains to join an elite airborne military squad based on an isolated island – he must pass his final tests without being killed by either friendly fire or foes before he can go to his brother’s rescue. The eldest, daughter Adare, remains in the capital among her father’s enemies. Newly elevated to Finance Minister by her father’s will, she aims to use her position to ferret out his killer. None of them know how the others are faring and none of them know the truth of the threats they are facing.

Staveley deftly switches between the points of view of each heir, though Kaden and Valyn’s chapters form the bulk of the text with Adare only featured in a few. Although this be off-putting to some, it’s for the best as much more development is necessary for the former characters than the latter and spending too much time with Adare would give too much away. Part of the genius of this method is that the reader is as unaware of what’s going on as either Kaden or Valyn, who have been away from their father for eight years. They feel like they barely know him, their other siblings, or what else is happening in their empire, focusing instead on furthering their spiritual and military studies respectively.

Both angles of the story are intriguing in their own right, and especially so when they are juxtaposed – Kaden and Valyn’s paths are so divergent with Kaden undergoing mental training and Valyn physical. Kaden especially finds it difficult to understand why he’s stuck in the monastery when he’s not on a path to monkhood and hasn’t progressed far in learning the Blank God’s lessons. Meanwhile Valyn, in part thanks to his training, catches on pretty quickly that something shifty is going on and attempts to use his skill to understand a string of suspicious activities and assassination attempts.

The primary characters are all fantastic – strong but vulnerable, intelligent but sometimes rash, and capable of learning from their mistakes. They all develop well throughout the book, remaining likeable and relateable. The supporting characters are fairly well-rounded too, coming from a diversity of backgrounds with varying personalities. Valyn’s cadet group in particular had astounding complexity, though I hope they’ll be explored more in depth, as with several of the characters in Kaden’s plotline who were brought in suddenly towards the end (ie. the leaches, Annick, Trieste, the merchants). The exposure of the villains behind the coup lost the book its half star because their motivations and alliances weren’t well-explained. This was possibly the one negative side-effect of the points of view, though perhaps more details will be forthcoming in the next book as the protagonists learn more.

The world-building is extremely well-done and thorough. Unlike many fantasy novels, this seemed loosely based on the Far East, with some Japanese-style elements as seen in the cover art. A unique feature is the magical elements – the leaches and the ancient Centeriim who perform magic and are hated and feared, and not much is understood about them even by the characters. Through all three children’s lessons, the reader gets exposed to the political, religious, and military history of the empire. Pay attention to those background discussions because they result in exciting climactic reveals in the last few chapters.

I could really keep talking about this book forever, but so as not to spoil it, I say just go pick it up! The only negative thing I can actually say is that I’m now stuck waiting until 2015 for the sequel and the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne seems like it will at least be a trilogy. Viewing the glass half full though, I guess I should be glad it at least has a publishing date – looking at you, GRRM. In the meantime, off to scour the Goodreads shelves for more awesome picks!

Fantastic for fantasy fans of all flavors. This one has swords, monks, swordfighting monks, plus a dash or two of political intrigue and magical creatures.

4.5 Stars

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