One problem with fantasy settings is lack of reliable communication. This is especially an issue when someone, say an emperor, is assassinated, and his heirs are scattered across the globe.
But then, if such a communication system existed in the Annurian Empire, we wouldn’t get to enjoy Brian Staveley’s engaging The Emperor’s Blades. The Phoenix Comicon guest delivers a compelling, Asian-tinged, debut filled with plenty of action, intrigue and expansive world-building.
The 2014 novel kicks off Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” trilogy, following the efforts of young Kaden, his brother Valyn and his sister Adare to reclaim the throne of their father, Emperor Sanlitun for their family. The trio are scattered across the country, each set upon a path by their father. Valyn is on a remote island training to become a Kettral, a sort of commando/ninja, the most dangerous members of the Annurian army. Imperial heir Kaden is cloistered in a mountain abbey, training in the secrets of the vaniate, a mental discipline to clear the mind and protect from attack, with the mysterious Shin monks.
Only Adare is in Annur, having assumed the role of Minister of Finance. Although she cannot claim the throne as a woman, intently seeks the murderer of her father, joining her wits with the strength of General Ran il Tornja, the regent holding the throne until Kaden’s return.
Much of The Emperor’s Blades is dedicated to subtle world-building and a slow ratcheting of tension. Valyn chafes as his military training nears an end, anxious to find out more about the death of his father, while Kaden’s spiritual training becomes increasingly brutal and insistent at the hands of the gruff monk Rampuri Tan. Soon Valyn finds himself entangled in seeming attempts on his own life, along with threats against his classmates and a murder amongst the island villagers near his training camp. A mysterious creature is attacking the monks and their flocks and a strange merchant couple has arrived at the monastery and started asking questions as well.
And throughout these tribulations, Adare and Il Tornja are ferreting out the emperor’s assassin, with all evidence pointing at the high priest in Annur.
Within these storylines, Staveley does some deft world building. We learn about the history of humanity in Annur, the Gods and the ancient Csestriim, immortal, emotionless humanoids who were destroyed by humans in ages past, without too much reliance on lectures and infodumps.
Eventually Kaden and Valyn’s POV’s entwine as the threats to both imperial princes move into the open and act in concert. It leads to a breathless conclusion — the tightened perspective drives the story forward with plenty of action,
That said, at some points the story does seem to bog down as the various plot threads unwind. And Adare’s POV is barely explored at all, until the pivotal revelation that closes the book.
But despite those quibbles, the deep world building and broad scope, not to mention the refreshingly non-Western culture, make The Emperor’s Blades a satisfying debut. The sequel, The Providence of Fire, hit shelves in January. Look for the review coming soon