Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
Book 1 of Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne
The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

It's hard to escape the "dark" descriptor on currently published books.  While optimism can be seen glimmering here and there, it seems pragmatism and doubt are more common.  The same cultural cynicism driving the surge of young adult dystopian novels contributes to the rising pervasiveness of Grimdark fantasy on adult shelves.  Obviously adults read YA, too, and experience the same rebellious thrill of fighting a corrupt system, but Grimdark reveals a harder (though no less applicable) truth:  the system is cruel and corrupt because its people are cruel and corrupt.  The system did not come from nothing.  In this harsh setting, a character is never happier than when using that system to exploit or demean others. 
Some people might consider labels an oversimplification, but I'm just lazy enough that I like the convenience.  Therefore I'm going to call this "Grimdark" and roll with it.  As this has been christened a Grimdark story, here are some truths about it:

1. Everyone will be horrible to someone .  Or someone will be horrible to them.  Constantly.
2. If someone dies, it will be in a horrible way.  Nobody dies in their sleep here.
3. If someone becomes happy, it's because something horrible is about to happen that will create stark contrast between the "before" and "after."
4. Nature is horrible and full of monsters.

Grimdark in a nutshell.
And that brings us to the wonderful world of The Emperor’s Blades.  Honestly, despite my cold reptilian heart and general misanthropy, I do not tend to seek out Grimdark books.  I might be cynical, but I’m not secretly wishing more despair on myself.  I like my sci-fi spacey, my historical fiction fully of Giant Quote Marks “History” and my fantasy heroic.  I don’t need to watch a Grimdark world pound out every soft fiber of humanity from the characters to empathize with them.
This might be why I found myself rather amazed that I liked this book. Honestly, I was about halfway through before I realized that I was reading a book that some might classify as dark fantasy.  Partly, I attribute this to the characters.  

There are allegedly three main characters (one of which is female – 10 points to the author), but just two of them get 90% of the screen time (and both of them are men, so I’m taking back 3 points).   Each brother is entangled in their own particular mess of problems (in a suitably Grimdarky way), and no matter how bad things seem, they're always about to get worse.  Somehow this comes off less as "life is dark, man, dark" and more "dangerous times ahead" which is more tolerable.  People get murdered, scary monsters stalk the night, more people get murdered, people get beaten up, mysterious people have ulterior motives, and finally even more people get murdered.  Oh, and there are gigantic people-carrying hawks.  It's practically a fairy tale!

One bright spot - if you want to call it that - is that when the female protagonist appears in one of her four POV chapters, she totally rocks the house.  This is one woman who can give as good as she gets and isn't about to let some stupid a-hole ruin her family.  I love her and I hope that the subsequent volumes have more of Adare in it.  (Oh yeah, this is the first book of a series.  Because the Cardinal Rule of Fantasy is "Thou shalt always write a series.")

So I've been a little nitpicky on the dark-front, but this book was entertaining - if you can look past the tone of despair and malice.  I'm honestly surprised this is Staveley's first book for how well I liked the characters and for how well the world held together through the plot arc.  If you don't mind dark fantasy, or you don't mind starting yet another series, this is a worthy book to read.

4 dark and malicious stars!

Will I continue to read the series?
Probably, if I remember to look for the next volume.  (This is why I should never start a series until at least the next book is announced.)

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