The Emperor has been murdered, dead far before he planned to be. His heir, Kaden, is far away, learning to be a monk, not yet ready to take on the mantle of imperial rule. His second son, Valyn, is still in training to become one of the empire’s most deadly fighters. Only his daughter Adare is in the capital. Though her father has granted her the position of Minister of Finance, she still isn’t as powerful as either of her brothers could be, and must navigate the tricky waters of court politics while trying to bring her father’s murderer to justice. Meanwhile the lives of Kaden and Valyn are in danger and both brothers must confront their own problems before they can even begin to start on the empire’s.
This book, which is an ARC, makes the claim on the back that “fantasy has never been more popular”. While I’ve been a fan of fantasy for most of my life, I think I’d agree with its assertion. Game of Thrones has taken over the imagination of many people and, although I like the books a lot less than I once did, I like that it’s becoming less of a stigma to enjoy fantasy and science fiction. The Emperor’s Blades isn’t quite up to the standards of the masters who have gotten us this far, like Robin Hobb or George R.R. Martin, but is certainly a big step in the right direction for its author.
The narrative is balanced between the three children, although they are all mostly grown. I think Kaden and Valyn were given more page time than Adare, but I personally found Adare’s part of the story most interesting. She’s the one who actually has to figure out what is going on, while her brothers are more impacted by related events. And her part of the story had the one moment where I think my mouth actually gaped open in surprise, although both boys have interesting stories, too.
For me the book started off slowly. I no longer read much epic fantasy and I’ve found that this sometimes means I am a little slower on the uptake as I try to learn who each character is, what their backstory is, and how it all relates together. It really picks up in the second half though because all three characters start sensing that something is going on. Neither of the boys know their father is dead for a good portion of the beginning of the story, but both sense that something is wrong in the way that others behave and how events fall out. Once those events and conspiracies start to come together, everything ties in and gets much more exciting.
The magic system in the book is particularly interesting as well. Magic has a very strong stigma against it and those who practice it are called leaches, because they must leach their power from something in their environment. The magic itself is slippery and mainly seems to involve changing the environment just slightly, enough to throw enemies off balance but only sometimes to cause big, cataclysmic events. It’s an intriguing enough concept but wasn’t developed enough for me.
I did think the book was lacking in some areas. Like I mentioned above, I didn’t think Adare had enough page time; there is far more potential around exploring her story and I hope that Staveley lets her shine in the rest of the series. I also felt that the world-building was a bit weak and confusing; most of it seems to come about through telling, especially one particularly long diatribe to Kaden, because the main characters stay more or less in the same relatively boring places throughout the entire book. The capital, where Adare is located, had the most potential, but was again not really explored. Amazing world-building really adds an extra dimension onto a fantasy novel and it was missing here.
In any case, I did feel The Emperor’s Blades was a solid debut and, if the next volumes address some of the lacks in this one, has a lot of potential for a great series. I’ll be giving the next one a try.
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