Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

A few times a year I notice a big push by one big traditional publisher or another about a book that they’ve clearly identified as the next big thing. The marketing is typically ratcheted up a notch or two – many review copies, interviews, blog tours, free sample chapters, etc. One of these books for 2014 is The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley – go ahead and search out the buzz, you’ll find a lot, including 7 sample chapters.
Of course these books are often mixed in how they are received both critically and financially, but in general it’s safe to say that they tend to have a potentially wide-market appeal and are not overly different from other popular books at the time. In this, The Emperor’s Blades is no different – it’s a fairly traditional sort of epic fantasy somewhat in a similar vein as George RR Martin and David Anthony Durham.
I rather enjoyed the story of the book, and I have to freely admit that Staveley writes a very good action scene and made me connect in a positive way with the characters of the story. This makes the book very readable, hard to put down, and flat-out entertaining. The world is neatly developed in the familiar medieval European and surrounding environs sort of way and the magic system is subtle in this opening book of the series with a potential to be bigger. All in all, it’s exactly the sort of thing that fans of epic fantasy crave, making this book a very logical choice to push as the next big thing.
However, I had a few nagging issues that simply didn’t go away. The first, and lesser, is with the character Adare, the daughter of the emperor, though not an heir due to being a girl. The book’s description talks her up in a big way, though this isn’t well realized in the book as she seems marginalized to a low page count as she plays something of the traditional role of female victim. It was disappointing, and consistent with the treatment of the only other female character of note in the book. I’ve been told that the second book rectifies many of these issues, but so far the series is not out to a good start.
But the bigger issue I had was with the general framework of this series. In short, epic fantasy is often a very conservative genre at heart and this series appears to be a poster-child example of it. Much of traditional epic fantasy revolves around the basic tenant of maintaining the status quo – the goal is keep or re-establish some monarchy or other style of generally oppressive government, usually in the face of some grave, even existential, threat that only the government can protect the people from. Only rarely is any sort of actual human progress sought.
This is absolutely the case with The Emperor’s Blades – there is a rather tyrannical empire, complete with casual slavery. Everything in the story is about maintaining this empire at all costs, and the always looming great evil that this government must protect its people from is introduced. This is a story of an aristocratic elite fighting to keep power.
To me, this sort of storytelling in epic fantasy is tired and lazy. I want something more, something progressive, or at least not something inherently conservative (and I’m not necessarily using these terms in a political sense). And I find it troubling where the default for epic fantasy is basically that tyrannical governmental structures are fine as long as they protect you from evil. Especially as I look at around at my own and similar governments.
In spite of my reservations, I feel that Staveley’s storytelling rose above the mediocrity of its framework, and I agree that most fans of epic fantasy will find it enjoyable. The book was fun to read and I imagine that I will read the second book, The Providence of Fire, to see where things go. Hopefully there will some big picture surprises that improve upon my reservations.
The Emperor’s Blades (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)


Antonakis said...

Very nice review with a lot of interesting points! I haven't read the book yet so I can't comment directly on that but I like the way you approached it, both the possitives and the negatives!

Paul Weimer said...

If there was more Adare, or none at all, perhaps, I could have liked the book more.

Imagine this book without an Adare POV, and the information flow problems the two brothers face, and the reader, trying to piece what happened together. While losing the female POV is a problem, I think a weak female POV is worse than none.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the hype we had over Unremembered by Orullian a few years back. So far I'm not inspired, to be honest, and the hype might actually be hurting the book's chances for me (not that I think hyped-up books can't be really good).

Carl V. Anderson said...

I was enjoying the book until the first time we meet Adaman Fane's wing and all the contemporary swearing and "Kent-kissing" started. I felt like the author was trying to graft military science fiction onto a fantasy world and it just wasn't working for me, particularly when opening chapters made it clear that Stavely was inventing some of his own language...why all the modern swearing and silly overuse of "Kent-kissing"? It threw me out of the story. Not sure I can go back to it despite all the hype I'm reading.

Neth said...

Yeah, while the language didn't bother me, there was some lazy worldbuilding that did.

Basically, there's this barren, desert island where nothing but a few birds can survive. Yet, it has a huge subterranean cave system that goes way deep into the ground and can support a very large population of huge monsters. The caves aren't flooded by seawater and there are rivers full of fresh water yet there's no actual source of fresh water. Etc.

Unknown said...

Interesing review. I'm currently reading this book and so far I've only read one chapter in Adare's POV, so I know what you mean.


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