Review: The Emperor’s Blades

I decided this year I would attempt to write something about every new book I read or film I watched.  It actually began as a resolution to write about every book or film, but then I realized I do way too much re-reading for that to be practical given my level of non-committment to this blog: a month and a half in and, along with the (serious! historical!) tome I’m currently working through, the rereads already are up to four: Nine Princes in Amber, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, That Hideous Strength, and Lord of Light.  I may have read a couple others as well; I don’t exactly keep count.

Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, as you might guess from the title, fits more with the light reading of that list.  It’s not only a new book to me but simply a new book, published last year.  Its setting is a fairly generic fantasy empire – wizards, ascetics, warriors, kings, the works –  which the protagonists must, naturally, rescue from its latest calamity, while perhaps learning something about the secrets of their noble (or otherwise) ancestors.  It’s also generic in that it’s intended as the beginning of a series, so resolutions to the main conflicts are rather lacking.  It might even be fair to say that more problems are raised than solved.

In tone, it’s similar to a lot of modern fantasy in that the world is assumed to be not such a nice place, and clear morality is apparently lacking, but the “good” people still mostly behave the way modern Westerner thinks they should – that is to say, doing no harm (unless you’re a soldier, in which case, whatever), and concern for the greatest good (of the people), and not much concern really for strictures of family or societal morality.

The writing is solid, sometimes even good.  Staveley avoids the trap a lot of empire-spanning works have fallen into (imitating not so much Tolkien’s original as Tolkien’s imitators, and I’m mostly, with regard to recent authors, blaming Jordan and Martin here) of trying to see every character’s point of view.  We have – at least right now – only the three protagonists, and their motivations are clearly pictured.  So far at least, the characters are not very deep and seem to encourage the reader to fall back on stereotypes, but that could change in further volumes.  There is one caveat: although Staveley does a decent job sketching a single protagonist’s character, motivations, and interests, his writing noticeably falls off when the protagonists interact and he tries to account for both perspectives at once.

This may be at least because plot-wise Stavelely seems determined to come up with a convoluted one, if only because it’s not entirely clear what the plot is or who’s really behind it.  Despite various revelations, on my reading at least their remains the question whether the “truths” revealed to the characters are in fact true.  My best guess is that certain of the details of the series’ plot he doesn’t even have worked out himself yet., or may have changed his mind even while writing this volume.
Overall I’d give the volume a C+ or B-: it was a fun read and I finished wanting to read the sequel but I don’t feel any need to re-read the book any time soon.  Whether it tilts higher or lower in the end probably depends on the tone and quality of said sequels, which may not be entirely fair but I say it’s Staveley’s fault for writing a series.