Epic fantasy has been heavily stocked over the years with some powerhouse writers — Jordan, Erikson, Wurts, Rothfuss and Martin have been the standard bearers of this genre of fantasy. It’s a pretty challenging genre to break into, but after reading the first book of the CHRONICLE OF THE UNHEWN THRONE, The Emperor’s Blades, I am reminded that there is always room for someone new.
In epic fantasy, great empires are never allowed to simply exist in peace. It’s almost inevitable that there is about to be regime change, or some long forgotten force/enemy is coming to threaten the known world. Brian Stavely uses this formula as the crisis into which the three young heirs to the Unhewn Throne are cast. The three children of the ruling Emperor of the Annurian Empire are all geographically separated, in training of one form or another to assume fitting roles. When their father is assassinated, their lives are completely overturned and they are forced to become who they must be without a period of grace.
If Kaden is the heir to the throne, then the choice of his training to become emperor is very odd. Living among a reclusive ascetic order of monks provides a great deal of training and experience, but exactly how that relates to becoming emperor is hard to imagine. Kaden’s teachers are cryptic, prickly and often punish him for failure to within an inch of his life, but because his father sent him to the monastery he endures and tried to improve.
Adare, oldest child of the Emperor, has been raised and trained to intellectual prowess. Her background and inability to inherit the throne make her well suited to becoming a powerful minister in the government. Her father’s bequest includes assignment as the Minister of Finance. In spite of the differences in gender and age, Adare’s skill and strength of character make her a match for her peers. The only child close enough to exact revenge on the suspected murderer of her father, she allies herself with those around her to try and bring the criminal to justice.
Valyn has chosen to be trained as one of the elite Kettral. Candidates spend years being trained in different disciplines to become members of teams of warriors who serve the Empire as special troops. I am reminded of US Special Forces and the training processes they have to endure in order to join a team. Valyn’s status as a son of the ruling dynasty does more to make him a target of competition and derision than to help him through the training. With only weeks to go before his final test to become a full Kettral, Valyn has no choice but to persevere with the hope of wreaking vengeance on whoever killed his father. In the midst of all this, a combination of events makes it clear that Valyn’s life is also at risk.
Brian Staveley tells this complex story with a clear voice. His ability to keep each of the characters more or less moving forward is adequate, but it is the level of detail that he is able to depict that really shines. Whether he is describing the conditions of a gruesome subterranean monster, the horrific wounds inflicted on a victim of torture or the sensation of being trained with methodologies that border on abuse you get a real, gritty experience.
The Emperor’s Blades is a solid first novel in a new epic fantasy series. I am glad to have had the chance to see this one kicked off and can’t wait for more from Brian Staveley.