Most of the adult readers I know in daily life don't read fantasy or science fiction much, if at all. I get it. It can be an acquired taste. Still, some books don’t deserve to be written off as too weird or unrealistic because of a little magic. Besides, these days it seems like fantastic elements are part and parcel of novels that avoid being banished to the genre ghetto.
Kate Atkinson, Helene Wecker, Rachel Cantor, are just a few of the writers of literary fiction who integrate fantasy-like elements into their stories. Why shouldn’t genre boundaries be just as porous in the other direction? There are many fantasy novels that would easily appeal to a much broader group of readers if the jacket copy and cover design were hidden by brown paper wrappers.
What distinguishes books with breakout potential from others that may never transcend their niche, as much as fantasy aficionados love them? In many cases it comes down to a set of characters that readers can identify with, empathize with; individuals they can root for or against. What would Lord of the Rings be without Frodo, or Sam, or Gollum? Would Game of Thrones be a success without Tyrion, Arya, Bran, Jon Snow, or even Joffrey? Wizards, dragons, and magic aside, it is the actions and fates of characters that fuel the kind of devotion and passion that are behind communities and fandoms that persist for decades.
With his debut, The Emperor's Blades, the first volume in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Brian Staveley shows he's vying for, and capable of, writing fantasy that has the ability to attract readers who say, "I don't usually like fantasy novels, but you have to read..." It's not without flaws, but this page-turner introduces a cast of characters we care about and a world, that while different from ours, is familiar and detailed enough to feel plausible.
The opening gambit is familiar -- a murdered king leaves behind a daughter and two sons. Can the heir to the throne and his siblings live long enough to insure their family's dynasty continues? Familiarity isn't, in this case, a harbinger of cliché. For one thing, this is a not a fantasy world built on the framework of Western European history and legend. Instead the world of Annur is infused with strong Asian religious and mythic influences making the book a refreshing change after a steady diet of fantasy novels built around Norse and Celtic influences.* Staveley's Annurian empire is also home to diverse characters from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds that, and at least in this first book, seem to be accepting of differences in skin color. Prejudice does exist, but is reserved for individuals, called ‘leaches’, who develop the ability to channel magic in the presence of a specific and individual amplifier. We meet a few leaches in the course of the story and some deserve the fear and hatred their magic engenders, while others are feared and mistrusted without reason.
A poet by background, Staveley writes crisp prose that rarely turns florid – I did note a couple of ‘gibbous moons’ giving off ‘argent light’ which made me raise an eyebrow since these turns of phrase that stood out as odd given the rest of the book’s phrasing.
The story is compelling and despite its length, the pages fly past and the book doesn’t feel too long. Well-placed details and effective world specific slang add the final touches that make this well-trodden fictional ground feel newly paved.
While the question of who is behind the plot to overthrow the ruling dynasty hovers, shadow like over The Emperor's Blades, the book is less concerned with political machinations than with dramatizing the process by which the protagonists of this epic fantasy are forged and tempered -- they are the Blades of the title after all -- into young adults with the capabilities that will allow them to unmask and face their enemies in later novels in the sequence.
Kaden, heir to the Annurian throne, has spent the last eight years in a remote monastery training in the ways of the Shin monks. His days are filled with repetitive tasks: pottery, physical labor and painting scenes from memory as a tool in attaining perfect recall. The monks live a simple life and are no easier on their royal charge than on the novices rescued from lives of poverty and crime. Displays of ego are harshly punished for it is critical that Kaden master the vaniate, the core of the Shin devotion to the Blank God. And, just at the point at which most readers are wondering why all this blankness is so important, Staveley reveals a bit of brilliant backstory that gives the ability transcend ego an urgency and life-or-death realism that trumps typical religious self-abnegation.
While Kaden is apprenticed to the Shin, his younger brother, Valyn, has spent the time as a trainee in an elite fighting core that uses giant hawk-like birds, Kettral, to gain mobility and rapid strike capabilities in a world where travel, by sail or on horseback, is slow. Unlike Kaden, Valyn learns early on of his father's murder and knows that he and his siblings are in danger. Veiled attempts are made on his own life even as he enters the final phase of his training, one that culminates in a secret trial by fire named after a god of death and darkness, Hull. Trust me, you do not want to attempt to rob a Kettral fighter in a dark alley.
By the end of the novel, both brothers experience significant losses and undergo transformations that expand their physical and mental readiness to face the greater battles they are sure to encounter in the next two books. By the end of the novel the brothers are far wiser, and far more dangerous, than the open and appealing youngsters we met in at the beginning.
Then there's the problem of Adare.
Adare, the oldest child, a young woman, has been stuck back in Annur while her brothers are off having all the fun. As a woman, she cannot inherit the throne and knows she is destined to be married to benefit the empire. Her power is physical power is limited, but before his death, Sanlitun elevated Adare to the post of Minister of Finance. Adare needs to figure out what is going on in the viper's nest of power.
Adare gets five puny chapters.
Her five chapters, while they might be necessary groundwork for the next installment, do her a disservice. The lack of pages means that her character is described and defined, but that we never get a chance to know her, to see her grow. Given her lack of presence, it's disturbing that we see her make some naive mistakes and engage in an ill-considered affair. The imbalance is a flaw in an otherwise smartly plotted book.
Adare's missteps and thin plot line are especially problematic given a plot arc that includes some very disturbing*, though never titillating or gratuitous, sexual violence. The book's poor treatment of so many women left me upset, and more than a little confused, because in other respects Staveley's female characters book are fierce and capable. For example, some of the deadliest and respected Kettral are women, and a female assassin plays a significant role in the latter portion of Kaden's storyline. Would I have been less disturbed if Adare's point of view was expanded? Probably.
The good news is that Adare gets a more central role in the next book, The Providence of Fire, as does another female narrator.
The bad news is that the next volume is going to be released until next January, which is just too damn far away.
FYI: I bought this book in print and audio format (brilliantly narrated by Simon Vance). Go with whichever option suits you better, there are no bad choices here.
*I know there are a number of writers that have broken free of the mythology of the west: N.K. Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed immediately come to mind, but there books are sitting in my to be read pile, waiting patiently for me to wise up and get around to reading them.
**These crimes were horrific to characters in the book, as well as to me.