The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

January 4, 2014
The Emperor’s Blades by Brian StaveleyThe Emperor's Blades Series: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #1
on 2014-01-14
Pages: 480
Format: eARC
Also in this series: The Last Mortal Bond

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In The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley, the emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late. An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test. At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.

The Emperor’s Blades
 by Brian Staveley has been getting a lot of attention through social media and blogging sites. As soon as I read about it, I thought it sounded amazing and when I listed in my “books that caught my eye” post on my blog, I wrote:

The blurb of The Emperor’s Blades suggests it has epic potential. I love the mention of “murky politics”, the fact it will have multiple POVs, and yes, I do like that one of the major POVs is female… and a female in a powerful position described as “master politician”.

So, now that I have read it, where does it stand? Well, unfortunately not quite as high as I had hoped. It was a fun read and I loved some aspects about the world and the story, but it just didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Perhaps you shouldn’t take this as too harsh of a criticism, because my expectations were fairly high; after all, I’ve heard it said that ‘this will be the best fantasy novel of 2014′.

First I will explain why it didn’t meet my expectations: Staveley’s writing style features an extensive amount of ‘explaining’; not as much as some books I have read, but a fair bit more than I prefer. He also has a tendency to repeat information more often than is needed. That said, depending on your tastes and preferences, neither of these are necessarily a bad thing that should have you writing off the book. For me though, books that have this habit tend not to be amongst my favorites. Also, some of the ‘revelations’ in the plot were predictable. Because of this, I questioned the intelligence of certain characters because of their blindness to plot ‘twists’ I felt coming a mile away. I almost wonder if the repetition and explanations were scaled back a bit if they could have been less likely to be picked up by the reader, making them less predictable.

When reading the blurb, it lists three characters, the three children of the Emperor:

When the emperor of Annur is murdered, his children must fight to uncover the conspiracy—and the ancient enemy—that effected his death.

Kaden, the heir apparent, was for eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, where he learned the inscrutable discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power which Kaden must master before it’s too late. When an imperial delegation arrives to usher him back to the capital for his coronation, he has learned just enough to realize that they are not what they seem—and enough, perhaps, to successfully fight back.

Meanwhile, in the capital, his sister Adare, master politician and Minister of Finance, struggles against the religious conspiracy that seems to be responsible for the emperor’s murder. Amid murky politics, she’s determined to have justice—but she may be condemning the wrong man.

Their brother Valyn is struggling to stay alive. He knew his training to join the Kettral— deadly warriors who fly massive birds into battle—would be arduous. But after a number of strange apparent accidents, and the last desperate warning of a dying guard, he’s convinced his father’s murderers are trying to kill him, and then his brother. He must escape north to warn Kaden—if he can first survive the brutal final test of the Kettral.

I had assumed each of these characters would be a major POV, so I will review the book by looking at the story and providing my impression of each of them:

I’ll start with Adare. I am not sure why she got almost equal billing in the blurb as she was barely in the book. As it turns out, I was actually completely okay with this as her chapters turned out to be my least favorite. I think she could prove to be interesting in future books in this series, but in this book, Valyn and Kaden stole the spotlight. This was much more their story. Maybe she has a larger role in the bigger picture of the series, but her turn in the spotlight really is yet to come. Her chapters gave us good information on what is happening in Annur, so they were useful, but they just never grabbed my attention as fully as the brothers’ chapters.

Moving on, Kaden and Valyn’s stories were both coming of age tales, just in different settings. Kaden’s story is that of an Emperor-To-Be sent to live the modest life of a monk in a very remote part of the mountains. His training is rather brutal compared to what one may expect from a monastery. His mentor takes no mercy on him as he is assigned tasks that seem to make no sense and punished harshly seemingly at his mentor’s whim. Also, there are mysteries here amongst the monks. There are characters you feel are more than they appear and it does lend an intriguing air to the book. I like Kaden. He is far from a spoiled heir and is rather humble after living amongst the monks for so many years. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to life outside of the monastery.

I have to admit Valyn’s chapters were my favorite. He is training to be an elite fighter (Kettral) and I think I enjoy having the larger variety of characters, the nature of his training and the battles as he makes his way to becoming a full Kettral. His is very much a grueling coming of age tale paired with mystery. Valyn is put in a position of not knowing who to trust but he must work to solve a mystery as well as determine who amongst him may be a traitor to the throne.

It is within this plot thread that the magic system is most seen: the Kettral train ‘leaches’ (magically gifted individuals) to be part of their crew. Leaches each have a unique source of power (called a well and kept secret) that they tap into to perform their magic. [Brian Staveley explained in one interview: ‘The fact that each leach has a different well means that no one, reader or other characters in the novel, starts out with an understanding of who can do what when.’] The Kettral teams also ride on gigantic predatory birds called kettrals which is a cool addition to the world. I really enjoyed the atmosphere in these chapters, the teams, the trials and the mystery.

I did still have a couple of reservations about even Valyn’s chapters: the largest of these were how many of the characters seem to be defined by their emotions. A couple of examples: there is the rage-y one, always ready to fight and blow things up. There is the calculating one, always solitary and so mysterious and likely up to no good. There is the arrogant bastard, always looking down his nose at everyone. I just felt these characters lacked any real depth and they felt closer to caricatures than genuine people. They weren’t bad, they just seemed …. simple. I think I would have preferred more complexity to at least some of the secondary characters. I believe this may have been exasperated by Staveley’s penchant for repetition. Not always a bad thing, some readers enjoy it, but I found it tiring to constantly be reading about how angry a certain character was, or how creepy and withdrawn another character was.

So, overall, I have to admit despite my complaints, I did enjoy this story. It was engaging, it was fun to read and the series has serious potential.  I think I would have preferred a tighter writing style with less repetition and less explaining, but that may be more a personal preference on my part. There are many successful books that read this way. I definitely plan on reading the next installment to see where Staveley takes it.

A version of this review was originally posted on Fantasy Faction

The Emperor’s Blades will be released January 14, 2014 in the US and February 1, 2014 in the UK. Many thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.



  • Nathan January 4, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Yes. Yes. Agree. Yep. Uh huh.

    Other than the fact that I felt Adare’s story had the most potential and you saw it as the your least favorite I agree with you entire review. I gave it three stars and had a lot of people think that meant it was bad in my eyes. No, just not great and not the ‘next big thing.’

    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) January 4, 2014 at 11:36 am

      Glad to hear you agree 🙂
      There’s definitely serious potential in Adare’s story, I just didn’t get drawn into it in this book. I think if she had been featured more, maybe I would have, but there just wasn’t enough there to hook me. And yes, it is a good book, just not as great as the hype that has been built about it.

  • Mogsy January 4, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Totally with both you and Nathan; I liked this one and gave it 3ish stars as well, and I also agree it’s not a bad rating. While I don’t think it’d be my favorite epic fantasy in 2014 either, I actually quite liked this book. The lack of Adare seems to be a point most reviewers noticed (myself included, when my review actually gets around to being posted) and I wonder if the bulk of her story lies in future books. From the ending I get the feeling Staveley has big plans, but somehow felt he had to shoehorn her in and give her any old side plot for the sole purpose of establishing her presence in the first book. I hope I’m right and we’ll see more of her in the sequel!

    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) January 4, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      I’ll definitely be interested to see your review. I actually didn’t feel Adare was shoehorned in at all. Without her chapters, we would have had no idea what was going on in Annur. So I felt like they had purpose and I did like getting that information, there just wasn’t very much of it. I probably wouldn’t have mentioned her so much in the review if she wasn’t featured so prominently in the blurb. I guess maybe the blurb, and what we have seen of her so far, lets us know she will be a major player later.

  • Ria (Bibliotropic) January 6, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Most of the reviews that I’ve been seeing for this book are very mixed, most of them saying it has a lot of potential but also has a lot of problems. It’s one that I’m definitely going to read for myself, and I know not to go into it with very high expectations, but I’m hoping that I’ll be a bit of an outlier and like it more than many I’ve talked to about it.

    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) January 6, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      Actually, I am hoping to see some more positive reviews because despite my complaints, it is a good book and a fun read. I actually wish the book hadn’t been touted as the “best of 2014”, I feel like that is an incredible task to put on any book, particularly a debut. It’s just setting it up to not meet expectations. I do feel a good number of people will really enjoy it so I’ll keep my fingers crossed you are one of them.