Sometime in 2013, I was nudged into the Warhammer 40K fandom by a friend of mine who was very much into the fandom, and suggested that if I gave the books a shot, I might find it to my tastes. Out of curiosity (and said friend’s enthusiasm) I decided to take a crack at it, and found that, while not all of it was to my tastes, there was quite a bit to like about it. It also helped that Hope and Matthew were into the fandom (especially Matthew), so there were people to talk to who were very enthusiastic about it and with whom I could consult for information, or just plain fannish talk.
One of the aspects of the fannish talk is a joke that is somewhat-prevalent in the fandom: the fact that the Emperor of Mankind is, quite frankly, a terrible father. The downward slide of his empire is often blamed on his mishandling and mistreatment of his own sons, the Primarchs: the eldest and (supposedly) most beloved, Horus Lupercal, would eventually bring down the empire his father built. An interstellar empire, spanning hundreds of lightyears and encompassing hundreds of thousands of planets, all of it brought down because one man could not be bothered to spend time with his own children and understand what made them tick, both as leaders and as individuals.
However, the Emperor of Mankind is not the only ruler to have made that sort of mistake—especially if one takes a look at the ranks of dead rulers in epic fantasy novels. What tends to happen is this: the ruler dies, and their nation is left in the hands of a child or children who are unprepared, undeserving, or both; this leaves it up to a hero (or group of heroes) to protect, aid, or put down the heir and ensure that the nation doesn’t fall further apart or disintegrate into civil war. This has become so common a trope that I’ve almost come to expect it of any novel labeled “epic fantasy”.
Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, however, turns out to be something of a surprise. In this first book of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series, the Emperor does die, but it quickly becomes obvious that he has done something right by his children, although they will certainly not find it easy to occupy the shoes their father left behind.
The Emperor’s Blades focuses on the three children of Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian, Emperor of Annur: Adare, his daughter and the eldest, who has risen to prominence as a politician in her own right and resides in the capital; Valyn, the middle son, who is training to be a deadly Kettral warrior at the Qirin Islands; and Kaden, his heir, who is training with the Shin monks deep in the Bone Mountains. But when Sanlitun is murdered, his three children must find a way to hold the throne for the rightful heir; find out who murdered their father; and keep themselves alive, for those who murdered the Emperor would like nothing more than for his children to die as well.
Right from the get-go, the first thing I noticed about this novel is the fact that the three Malkeenian siblings most emphatically don’t want to kill each other—in fact, they are more than happy to recognise Kaden as the next ruler: when Sanlitun dies both Adare and Valyn, but most especially Adare, know that they have to make sure their baby brother makes it back to the capital safe, sound, and as soon as possible, to ensure that the empire remained stable. Their lack of resentment for Kaden’s position is heartwarming, especially when considered from the flashbacks to childhood that both Valyn and Kaden have. Adare is conspicuously absent from these flashbacks, but it’s interesting to note that when the story is told from her perspective, most of her memories have to do with her father, implying that he intended to groom her specifically as political support for her youngest brother, while Valyn was intended to protect him, As for Kaden, the reason for his being sent away to a distant monastery is revealed in the novel itself. As I mentioned earlier, it appears Sanlitun did something right when he raised his children, which makes for a refreshing change instead of all the siblings wanting to murder each other.
The above impression is helped along by the fact that it is the three siblings themselves who are the story’s primary narrators, with the point-of-view jumping from one sibling to the other every so often. There is a noticeable death of chapters dealing with Adare, which I find mildly disappointing, but Kaden and Valyn are represented prominently, and I find that they make for some very good reading—even if Valyn does strike one as being rather bone-headed from time to time. The siblings’ individual voices are established quickly and solidly, with their personalities and motivations telegraphed quite clearly to the reader. There is still plenty of room for character development, of course, but as it stands the siblings are on firm ground, and what happens in later books will take off from what has been established for them in this first novel.
As for the plot, it’s got enormous potential: Staveley has clearly laid down the groundwork for something enormous, and I cannot wait to see what happens further down the line, now that most of the world building and character development has been gotten out of the way in this first novel. I do feel, though, that The Emperor’s Blades could have been touched up a bit in some places, especially when dealing with Valyn’s investigation of the supposed accidents happening around him. That plot line could have been very interesting, and very fun, if it had been loosened up a bit, given some room to breathe. I suppose Staveley was going for “breathless action”, but it would have been nice for the facts—such as they were—to settle into one’s head before something else came along.
I also wish that Staveley had written a bit more about what was happening with Adare. I’m aware that this is a double bias on my part, since I like Adare as a character and I adore plot lines that involve court intrigue, but I think it would have been very interesting to see how court life and politics works in Annur, especially given who Adare is and what she does. I’m especially interested in the interaction between religion and politics in the capital, given the clear friction between the priesthood of Intarra and the more secular imperial court.
Staveley’s writing is, fortunately, remarkably easy to read. There is a made-up language used in the novel, but it’s just terminologies for specific ideas and concepts. Staveley’s characters also use the swearwords that the reader would use in everyday life (if the reader does swear), with some alterations made for using the names of the gods when swearing. The rest of it flows easily and readily, with clear linguistic distinctions when chapters switch between the three narrators: Adare’s tone is very different from Valyn’s or Kaden’s, for instance, making it easy to figure out just who is telling the story at any given point in time.
I’m also quite happy with the world building Staveley’s done for this novel. The Annurian Empire and its neighbouring kingdoms feels big enough, and, more importantly, troubled enough at the borders to add some layer of urgency to getting Kaden to the throne as soon as possible (albeit not really enough in this novel; true urgency will have to wait until the next novel, I suppose). While I wish there had been more written about the imperial court itself, what’s been written about the Shin and the Kettral is interesting and feels quite solid. While it’s obvious Staveley’s drawn from a whole host of sources to create the world of his novel, what matters is that it feels like a cohesive whole, and fortunately, the world as it’s written about in The Emepror’s Blades feels cohesive enough.
In terms of themes, Staveley isn’t treading any new ground with The Emperor’s Blades, but then again, this is just the first book in a series, and is primarily devoted to introducing the reader to the series’ key characters and to building the world itself. Hopefully, Staveley will go somewhere interesting in later books, or at least not fall into certain painful cliches—especially where Adare is concerned.
Overall, The Emperor’s Blades is a very promising new novel, launching what looks to be a really fun series. It has three narrators/protagonists with clear voices whose personal histories and motivations are very clearly established in this novel, in a world that’s solid enough and big enough to support what looks to be a grand plot of the first order further down the line. However, this is just the first novel of a series, so hopefully the promise it currently holds will find fulfilment further down the line, in the upcoming novels. Staveley’s set the hook, and I’ve taken it; now, it remains to be seen if he can reel me further in by continuing the promise of this one. It will be truly disappointing otherwise.