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Guest Post: Liz Bourke Reviews The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

Liz Bourke is one of the more outspoken bloggers and reviewers in the genresphere, with her work published by Ideomancer, Strange Horizons and Tor.com among others, as well as on her own blog. Between all this, she found time last year to present a paper on representations of the Minoans at the Science Fiction Foundation’s conference on the Classics in Fantastika, which is where we met after long discussions of the subject on Twitter.
After reading Niall Alexander’s review and seeing his criticism of the role of women in Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, I asked her to review the novel; she agreed and sent me this…

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Brian Staveley’s 2014 debut from Tor Books, The Emperor’s Blades, is in some ways an interesting snapshot of recent trends in the epic fantasy subgenre: a subgenre that continues to splinter and diversify at an ever-increasing rate. If Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin represent one direction, Trudi Canavan and Glenda Larke another, and Elizabeth Bear and N.K. Jemisin different directions still, Staveley falls somewhere between Canavan and Abercrombie: reaching for the alienating power of brutality while playing it safe, even rather traditional, in terms of characters – and, ultimately, in terms of the overarching narrative.
I’ve lately taken to looking at cover art for what it indicates about – or how closely it parallels – the novel’s contents. Richard Anderson’s atmospheric watercolour features three human figures and a menacing giant raptor in harness. The rightmost human is a female figure, slight, occluded: though she looks directly at the viewer, her presence is overpowered by the central shaven-headed man, armoured and robed; while to the left, a warrior stares at the ground, overshadowed by the misty figure of the raptor, his sword angled down and to the right. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but for me the male figures evoke the over-the-top masculinity of Zack Snyder’s 300 films…
…which means the cover art is a pretty decent indicator of The Emperor’s Blades, after all. Staveley is capable of imagining a world where giant raptors can bear the weight of five or more armoured humans, and where an emperor may send both his heirs away from his capital in their childhood to training that may prove fatal, but he cannot depict a world in which women occupy roles apart from “killer” or “whore.” Or in one instance, the daughter of an emperor – one who’s fairly terrible at being a political animal, for a woman allegedly raised at the heart of an imperial court.
None of the politics here make sense, and the failings of The Emperor’s Blades in this regard are more noticeable for my having read it between books that treat their political logics much more logically.
The emperor of Annur has two sons and a daughter. No woman can inherit his throne, but while Adare remains in the capital, his two sons have been far removed from it for years. The elder, Kaden, is training with the monks of Shin in a remote monastery, undergoing beatings and privations to inure himself to suffering in search for vaniate, “Empty Mind.” It is a harsh training, in which novices sometimes die. The younger son, Valyn, is in training for Annur’s equivalent of the SAS, the Kettrals, who deploy in five-person teams borne by giant raptors. Kettral training begins in childhood, and many of the cadets die, or are crippled, before their training is ended.
One begins to wonder how the empire of Annur lasted more than a generation, if all its emperors are so careless of their heirs.
I want to say that The Emperor’s Blades opens in the wake of the emperor’s death by treachery, but that’s not entirely accurate. The Emperor’s Blades opens with a three-page prologue, in which Crapsack World Grimdark Elves (“Csetriim”) murder human prisoners. Eventually, over the course of the novel itself, it becomes clear that the prologue represents Ancient Times… but it is very late in the novel before it becomes clear whether or not Ancient Times have any relevance to the events of the plot, such as it is.
In the wake of the emperor’s death, Valyn continues his training with the Kettrals, but a series of events cause him to fear for his life and to suspect a traitor among his commanders. The only person in whom he dares confide is his friend and fellow-cadet Ha Lin, a woman to whom he is also attracted. (The Kettral teams are also the only branch of the military in which men and women may serve together – indeed, in which women may serve at all.) Kaden, ignorant of his father’s murder, is kept busy running up and down mountains and being buried alive by his monk-teacher, while some strange beast stalks the monastery’s herds. Meanwhile, in the capital, Adare –
– I was going to try for a tone of distant objectivity, but I can’t. The plotline with Adare, raised on her father’s death to the position of Minister of Finance, makes the least sense of any of the narrative strands, while also taking up the least space in the narrative. She’s never shown doing anything related to her position, and for a politician or a court lady, she is really bad at politics. And, ultimately we discover that the deceased emperor suspected treachery, but rather than bring his daughter into his confidence while he was still alive, he deliberately put himself at risk alone, leaving only a note behind… which Adare conveniently discovers only after she’s fallen into bed with the best candidate for chief traitor.
Staveley’s style is readable, although his pacing is unbalanced. For a time I thought, despite his failure of imagination on the killers/whores front, the lack of good logic, and a rather unfortunate fixation on breasts, that he had written a book I could nonetheless enjoy. That changed when he killed off Ha Lin and used her death as an extra spur for Valyn’s plot arc: it feels rather too close to a classic case of fridging.
The grand climax is a thing of confusion and slaughter. The brothers are reunited. Valyn exacts his revenge on the people who killed his friend. It is revealed that the Murderous Not-Elves are still around and probably behind the plot against the emperor and his heirs, because Magic Reasons.
Looking back, the novel as a whole, for all the readability of its prose, seems more like an excuse to describe people subjected to sadistic training regimens in extended, loving detail than anything else. Suffering: the suffering of men, filled with meaning, directed towards a higher purpose.
Which is nonsense, because the kind of suffering Staveley depicts as turning his two princes into heroic killing-machines is the kind of suffering than ruins healthy bodies and leaves an unpleasant legacy of mental trauma in its wake as well.
On the whole, it fails to make sense. And speaking for myself, I’m not really inclined to give it sufficient benefit of the doubt to read a sequel. Perhaps Staveley’s next trilogy – if this is, indeed, a trilogy – will prove a more thoughtful exercise.

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Thanks again, Liz! That lets me know this one’s worth avoiding, then…


4 Comments

  1. […] Franklin bribed me into reviewing this for him over at his place. Spoiler: I wasn’t really […]

  2. Excellent. There’s another one I can cross off my list…

  3. Nathan says:

    I was so bored of the training by torture, which was predictable in execution within pages yet lasted for over a third of the book. Excellent summery.

  4. I found the emphasis the novel, according to Liz’s review, laid on training by torture fascinating in the context of Three & 300 – both of which cover the Spartan approach to that same thing, & take very different approaches.

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