Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

The Great Emperor of Annur has been assassinated. His three children, including his heir, Kaden are scattered across the continent. Caught out of position, even the news of the death of the Emperor takes time to reach Kaden and Valyn, as isolated as they are. Adare, the Emperor’s daughter and a minister in her own right, is left shakily at the center of things.
Who really killed the Emperor? And for what purpose? And can the martial skills being learned by Valyn, the ministerial skills of Adare and the meditative training of the heir, Kaden, be put to use to solve the mystery? Or just even to survive?
The Emperor’s Blades is a debut Epic Fantasy from Brian Staveley.
The book has many of the virtues of what I call neo-Epic Fantasy–a large scale setting, but relatively few point of view characters. Instead of the more than dozen viewpoint characters one might find in Martin, or Erikson, the book restricts itself almost exclusively to the principals. We don’t get a look into the minds of the antagonists, as determining who and what they are is part of the fabric of the book. This gives us deep understanding of the brothers Valyn and Kaden, as they are even unaware at first that there has been an assassination, and (especially Valyn) can do little about it anyway once they do find out.
The major weakness, or the missed opportunity, even, though, is with Adare. Staveley clearly knows what he wants to do with Valyn and Kaden. The book spends a large pagecount on their day to day life and training. A constellation of secondary characters grow up around each of them, especially Valyn. The Kettral society and the society of monks devoted to the Blank God are rich places, settings and character webs.
By contrast, Adare gets extremely little to work with, especially in terms of pagecount. While her plotline is important (as she is directly working on the assassination problem), it gets short shrift by comparison. Although likely unintended, the text feels like it tackles her story with extreme reluctance. Also, while the secondary female characters around Valyn come off well, the writing of Adare feels very much like the author is unsure of himself and what he wants to do with her. Also, the cultural bias against female leadership seems ill at ease with the facts on the ground as far as women in the Kettral. The text seems more content to spend pages and pages on Kaden being buried alive as part of his training than to have Adare come across as anything other than a plot device.
The writing is entertaining, the action pieces well done, and Valyn and Kaden, and those around them, come across very well. There are some neat worldbuilding ideas here, and clear set ups for future volumes. The mishandling, in my eyes, of Adare keeps what might have been an excellent debut epic fantasy into only a pretty good one.