The Emperor’s Blades was another experiment of mine. I think I came across the title on some list. “If you like such-and-such novel series, you may like this,” that sort of thing. Written by Brian Staveley as the first in his trilogy, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, I can say this is one of the must unique and well-written novels I have ever read. Staveley is apparently quite well-learned in many subjects including literature, religion, history, philosophy, and creative writing (I got that from the “About the Author” section), and it shows – really shows – in his writing.
The story, set in a fantasy world, follows three adult children of an emperor: two boys, Kaden and Valyn, and their sister, Adare. In particular, it shows us what each is doing in the first few months after their father has been assassinated.
Kaden, heir to the throne, was sent as a boy to a small order of monks to learn their ways, in a place that makes “the middle of nowhere” look like “a booming metropolis.” He doesn’t know what has happened to his father for most of the story, but there is already an evil creeping nearby, circling closer, hoping to trap him. And that’s in addition to surviving the monks’ training, which is so harsh that it absolutely dwarfs all meaning of the word “ascetic.” There is a purpose behind this, and a vital one at that. It boils down to teaching the future emperor a single skill, one that is absolutely essential for him to protect the Empire, its citizens, and the whole of humanity.
Valyn, next in line, was sent, also as a boy, to join the ranks of the single most elite military body in the Empire, likely the entire world. The Kettral, as they are called, ride giant birds of the same name, operating as five-man units, a “Wing,” to drop in on the enemy like death from above, getting in, completing the mission, and getting out, typically leaving piles of slaughtered enemies in their wake. Valyn is the first one to learn, from a dying imperial guard that was sent to protect him, that his father’s death was part of a conspiracy, one aimed at his entire family, and traitors abound in positions high and low. He’s limited in what he can do, however, but once his training is finally complete, within two months, then he hopes to go find and protect his brother. In the meantime, however, he has plenty of problems, including several attempts to kill him.
Adare is older than her brothers, but she’s not in line for the throne because patriarchies are unfair like that. She has remained in the capital, learning a great deal about running an empire directly from her father. After his death, his will elevates her the the position of a minister, so she is right in the heart of things, among the politics and lies, the decisions which can influence the entire world, and she finds herself at the heart of the conspiracy, like standing in the eye of a hurricane. We didn’t actually see that much of her in this first novel, as her brothers had hellish crap to deal with every single day while she dealt with slow-moving politics, but her part in the story was pivotal, intriguing, and very well-told. I look forward to seeing more of her, especially, in succeeding novels.
What each of these three are dealing with, however disparate, is all part of a much longer conflict that goes back for thousands of years, and is coming to a head right now. An ancient, powerful, highly dangerous foe has returned, and most of the world doesn’t even remember they ever existed. These three surviving members of the imperial family are all that stand between their people and annihilation. They are what the emperor, in a posthumous letter to his daughter, refers to as his “final blades.” He used his own sword, of course, to try and combat this conspiracy against him, but in the event of his failure, he made to pass his will on his children. His blades. The emperor’s blades.
By the end of the novel, after weathering the first series of assaults against them, the children have indeed inherited their father’s will.
It’s not easy, though. Not remotely. They all know what true loss is like before the end. People of all kinds are caught in the crossfire, and a number of good people die. There was a point I practically screamed at my kindle, “Stop killing everyone!” 😛
Between that, some language, and a bit of adult content, I cannot stress enough that this is not a novel for little children. However, unlike other stories I could name (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin…) the violence and death, the language and other content, it all serves an actual narrative purpose. Staveley walks the fine line of balancing a realistic story with unnecessary content superbly well.
And I could not begin to count the number of times I stopped to think and create a mental commentary. There were so many juicy bits for my brain to bite in to, and loved it! 😀
For one example, skating around spoilers… there is a scene where a woman is telling her friend that she was assaulted. His first fear is that she was raped, but she wasn’t, and then he’s relieved, for a just a moment, before she gets angry and screams at him, because he doesn’t understand something. She wasn’t raped… but she was. Rape is less about sex and more about power, asserting it over another person, making them feel powerless. True, she may not have been sexually violated, or at least not in one specific way, but the perpetrators did inflict that psychological torment on her, so she was, in fact, raped. It was just a little less obvious, and all the more devastating for how it doesn’t technically “fit” the usual definition of such, so it’s harder to reflexively understand it, and therefore come to terms with it.
I probably picked that example, out of all of them, because of my own strong feelings on the matter of rape, as well as my own understanding that some traumas, and other things, are harder to understand and deal with than others simply because they are less physical, less visible, more difficult to grasp, like trying to catch smoke with your fingers.
See? Right there, I just automatically wandered into deep waters and heavy matters with just one insight, out of many, which I gained in reading this book. That is how awesome it is.
So, all in all, I very much enjoyed The Emperor’s Blades.
Rating: it is my standing practice to deduct one point for being non-child-friendly, and that is the only reason this gets 9 stars out of 10, instead of the full 10.
I am definitely going to read the rest of this trilogy! 🙂