The Emperor's Blades (2014), by Brian Staveley, is perhaps the least surprising entrant on any of this year's shortlists. To pat myself on the back, I called this in February - but then, anyone could've.
Which, of course, begs the question - why? Other than its immense popularity1, what is it about The Emperor's Blades that says 'I AM LEGEND' (or, in this case, Morningstar)? The answer to that is pretty simple. The Emperor's Blades is the most 'core fantasy' fantasy of the year, and in that lies both its strength. 'Core fantasy' is actually a rubbishy marketing term, but works well here - basically, this is a really fantasy fantasy. "Formulaic" is a slightly prejudicial way of putting it. "Classic" may be more accurate. Pick your term of choice.
The Emperor of Annur is dead, presumably assassinated through arcane means. His three children, our protagonists, are stationed at different parts of the empire, finding themselves. Kaden, the oldest son and heir to the throne, is having his mojo tested at an isolated monastery - learning that being a man involves emptying his mind, avoiding the Dark Side, and spending a lot of time buried up to his neck in the ground. Valyn, the second son, is sublimating his spare heir angst training with the Kettral - the big-bird-based sky ranger elite. While Kaden contemplates nothingness, Valyn does epic fantasy boot camp - push-ups and war games. Finally, Adare, the Emperor's daughter, and the only one left in the capitol city. As the newly-minted Minister of Finance, she's in a position not only to keep the empire ticking along, but also to snoop around into the cause of her father's death.
Structurally, this is a work of crowd-pleasing genius. If you're a sucker for high fantasy training sequences (I very much am), this has two of them. Kaden mucks about in magic school, trained by Yoda-ninjas who espouse Hallmarkian wisdom in typically inscrutable ways.2 For those that like their experience points gained in a more visceral way, Valyn's hacking his way through Battle School. Both characters discover they are - believe it or not - Chosen, and - double gasp - in possession of unique powers. And both characters discover that there is - holy smokes! - something really Big And Cosmic happening, and it is their destiny to stop it! Two archetypical high fantasy quests for the price of one! And, you know what? They're both really fun. Kaden and Valyn are both good characters - lightly tormented, of course, but in an accessible way. Their trials and tribulations are a blast to follow, and their individual 'self-fulfilment' arcs are good, catchy stories.
However, poor Adare is given short shrift. Not only is she not at Battle School or Dagobah, she's not Chosen in any way. In fact, her one bid at 'Chosen'-ness is a political appointment - one that doesn't really go her way. While Kaden and Valyn busily level up, Adare's scenes (there aren't many) mostly serve as background. Bad stuff: still happening. Politics in the capital: quite tense. Trust no one. Etc.
Adare is frustrating on multiple levels. First, her story really is brutally truncated. Hers is the only character whose storyline is (currently) on the macro level, and not just about self-advancement. Therefore, it is disappointing that her investigation into assassination and treason is permanently on fast forward. Second, Adare is the only character with a glimmer of new-ness: she's a pragmatic bureaucrat with no 'specialness' besides her supposed smarts. While the others magic-punch monsters, she's caught in a political thriller: a Daniel Abraham character in a Brandon Sanderson world. Third, there's a residual disappointment that comes having the female character be completely overlooked by the cosmic narrative - doubly so since she's not only the best-placed to take the reigns of the empire, but that's seemingly never discussed. Kaden is trained in the arcana secrets of the hidden world, because apparently that's more valuable to running an empire than, say, understanding how the nation actually works. Oh, and hell, Fourth: there's a touch of the 'silly little girl' about Adare's investigation and its results. She's repeatedly fooled, which gives us a tell/show discrepancy between her intelligence (apparently vast?) and what we actually read (silly rabbit!).
But then, Adare really isn't part of the story. What does matter in The Emperor's Blades is the Kaden and Valyn combination. The boys' quests to learn skills, master skills and kick a bit of ass? Well, they're a lot of fun. The chaps learn just enough about the big scary plot to make everything meaningful, but really, this is about finding, explaining and exercising their new skills. As noted above, this is two "Book One's" mashed together, and both are really enjoyable, traditional stories.
Interestingly enough, The Emperor's Blades essentially wipes the slate clean at the end of the book, as the brothers resolve their introductory quests and get ready for the big show. It is, as with much else in this book, an excellently crafted narrative maneuver.
Is it fantastic? Yes indeed. There's a solid magical system at the heart of things, where wizard-y types are powered by stuff - either physical (rocks!), personal (my pet bird!) or emotional (joy!). It strikes the right-balance of hand-wavey 'magic does magic stuff' and grounded, so it can't run away with the story.
Is it entertaining? Oh, very much so. I used the word 'crafted' earlier, and I think that's an excellent one for The Emperor's Blades. It strikes the right balance between meta-plot and personal challenges, humour and eldritch quasi-philosophy. The narratives are juggled excellently as well: the reader hops back and forth between Kaden and Valyn at exactly the right times, so you never tire of either, and you're always on tenterhooks. (Which is why poor Adare is such a weird inclusion.)
Is it immersive? Yes. I mean, the world is kind of functional, but that's no bad thing. Like the magic system, you get what you need to move forward and appreciate the stories.
Is it emotionally engaging? Yup. Kaden and Valyn are nice. They never do anything seriously wrong, but they're also not (overtly) superhuman. They're very much of the high fantasy mold where they're pleasant everymen, and it is extremely easy to empathise with them.3
Is it embarrassing? Meh. I mean, no more or less than, say, Tolkien. Which is to say, no better or worse than the industry standard. I'm not going to say that women do particularly well here. We basically have four: Adare (noted above), a imprisoned princess/sex worker, a serial killing archer (who is genuinely quite badass) and a best friend/romantic interest.4
Is it different? No. Very much not.
The Emperor's Blades is built on the long-standing traditions of the fantasy genre. This is what makes it so much fun and so incredibly successful. It tells us a story that we already know and love. And it does so excellently.
So... let's play a game! Imagine The Emperor's Blades with a wee bit of protagonist scrambling. What if we kept absolutely everything else the same, but made, say, Kaden, the unquestioned heir to the throne, a woman? Or Adare, with her secret liaison, was a gay man? Both of these changes would have virtually no impact on the plot, but, and especially in a book so utterly traditional, they would be a powerful way of addressing the reader's - and the genre's - default assumptions.
I think reviewing a book against what I "want it to be" is insidious, and I would never knowingly "down-grade" The Emperor's Blades for not being something else. It is a very good book just the way it is. However, games like this one show how much fantasy - especially traditional, epic fantasy - is still built on a firmly-embedded platform of straight maleness.
In fact, the more traditional the story, the more value there would be to including diverse representation. Right now, we tend to find diversity in experimental/ambitious/aggressive (pick your adjective) fantasy - for example, from this year's contenders, authors like Ben Peek and Kameron Hurley. But that's not actually challenging the social norms of genre as much as reinforcing them - they're providing the exceptions that prove the rule. Where the gap is - and what genre is consistently fails to do - is show that diverse protagonists can do the start-on-a-farm-get-Chosen-and-smite-the-Dark-One quests too. We need gay Frodo, black Belgarion and a female Kvothe. Bog-standard, by the numbers protagonists that show that diversity doesn't have to be the focus of the story - it can just be.
Anyway, The Emperor's Blades isn't the target of this ... theorising... as much as a reminder of its necessity. What this book is is an excellent book that comes straight from heartland of commercial fantasy. There's a direct line of patrilineal succession that runs from Tolkien to Brooks to Eddings to Sanderson to here. It is an excellent snapshot of what fantasy is today - and if it is a little surprising to realise how similar that is to the fantasy of yesterday or the day before - that is outside of the scope of this review. This may be a safe book, but it is a fun one, and it is impossible to argue with or to begrudge its success. The Emperor's Blades is entertaining and well-crafted; complete with enjoyable characters and a cracking story. Well worth reading, even if you've read it before.
1. Not just immense, but disproportionate. Staveley is the only Morningstar book with Legend numbers. It has as many ratings/reviews as all the competitors combined. Twice over. (Download CSV /Download PDF)↩
2. The Emperor's Blades features the 'Shin' monks. Which is, interesting enough, the same name used for the rather shameless East Asian analogues in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive. I don't think this is intentional, but it is indicative of the way high fantasy heuristics play out. Which probably bears discussion at length. In another post.↩
3. Only in high fantasy does 'everyman' equal 'heir to an Empire' and 'possessed of unique magical powers'. But aside from the fact neither Kaden nor Valyn are anything at all like the reader, they're still easy for the reader to identify with, and that makes them successful characters.↩
4. Spoiler (highlight to read): Fridged.↩