The Emperor’s Blades, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne 1, by Brian Staveley
The Emperor’s Blades is the début novel by fantasy author Brian Staveley. Prior to its release (14 Jan 2014 US, 1 Feb 2014 UK according to Amazon) the review train has been gathering pace with plenty of high praise in the fuel tank, and it’s easy enough to see why. It’s generally well written and mostly well paced. The storyline is relatively straight forward, but then it does give plenty of room for little side stories where we can learn more about the characters and settings, and there’s a nice twist that really gets things moving as the story builds towards the end.
I got my hands on an ARC of The Emperor’s Blades and moved it up to the top of my to read list as I liked the way the blurb sold it to me, and I always like to find new authors to check out. In general, I thought it was an entertaining read without quite managing to be an excellent one. It didn’t fully grab me until about half way through, or perhaps even further than that, and for a long time seemed like it was the story of one young man trudging around in the mountains and another running around battling paranoia as he tried to solve a mystery.
Of course, there was always much more to it than that, but for the first half or so of the book, I was never quite sure where it was going. Part of this may have been down to it having a prologue which, for me, added absolutely nothing whatsoever to the book. I know some people who have problems with prologues but I’ve never shared the sentiment. Saying that though, this is the first time I’ve read one and thought it should have been left out completely. Take this prologue out however, and you open with the young Kaden tracking a lost goat through the mountains and although it is important for later plot points, this wouldn’t work as an opening if you want to ensure I carry on reading.
Much better would have been the intrigue of Valyn’s first chapter, though I almost felt like banging my head against the wall when his companion was introduced as the similarly sounding Ha Lin. This opening piece sets up the story and also sends Valyn on his way to always looking over his shoulder and the difficulties he faces in not trusting anyone. When people are asked to help in his investigation it’s without knowing what they’re helping with, but they still go along with it anyway. This didn’t quite read right to me and perhaps a bit more interaction with these characters would smooth over these rough edges and make the flow of these parts a bit better.
I did like the idea of the special forces that are Valyn’s Kettrel, even if I wish the great birds they fly around on weren’t also called kettrel, which can get a little confusing if you don’t note the difference in capitalisation. I also like how everyone on the Kettrel Wing has their own separate function (flier, sniper, demolitions, leach, duellist) although it seemed a little too convenient that there would be an even number of each function when it came to assigning graduates to their Wings – maybe that’s why some characters don’t make it through the trials, to avoid any issues with uneven numbering.
Another plus for me is the subtle magic of the leach, although I’m still not sure whether I’d prefer to know a bit more about what a leach is when I’m first introduced to the word or not. As it is, I was left thinking one thing and it ended up being something completely different. Learning more about leaches and what they can do is good when it is addressed, and it’s easy to see why they are valued by the Kettrel even if they are reviled by the rest of the world. There are other subtleties that work well for me too, such as the way passing Hull’s Trial will change a person who graduates to become Kettrel, and the way this isn’t told, but instead is gradually pieced together by our characters.
Overall, I’d say there’s definite promise here. Although personally I don’t feel that the ending sucked me in to eagerly awaiting the next in the series, I’ll happily pick it up when I do get the opportunity. One thing I look forward to is seeing more of the world coming up, not just with more of the city where Valyn and Kaden’s sister can be found, but as Kaden will be doing some exploring and perhaps Valyn too, with a kettrel at his disposal.
Overall: Well worth the read, this is a solid debut offering the action of the Kettrel, the intellectual journey of the monks and the political intrigue of the city all in one volume.
Dominish rating: 68%