With the giants of epic fantasy taking longer and longer between installments, genre aficionados are constantly looking for the next big thing and if the hype is to be believed Brian Staveley's debut The Emperor's Blade may just be it. With a familiar plot structure, characters that are comfortably similar to old fictional friends, and a subtle magical system that begs to be explored in more depth there is certainly plenty to recommend in this first volume. Whether or not the strength of Staveley's story telling can overcome the essential sameness of it all and the few problematic choices in his handling of female characters is the real question.
Like so many epic fantasies, The Emperor's Blades focuses on the ramifications of the death of a long-standing and well loved king and the immediate dangers faced by his surviving children. I was immediately reminded of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and David Anthony Durham's underrated Acacia which is obviously not bad company for Staveley to keep. Tropes are popular for a reason, and Staveley's characters are certainly compelling enough to support the familiar nature of his story. The three grown children of the dead Emperor are thrust into dealing with the death of the father and the conspiracy that led to his demise. The male heirs, Kaden and Valyn have been sent away from the capital to learn the skills that their father believed would best serve them in defense of the kingdom. Kaden has spent the past eight years studying with an order of contemplative monks, whose mental discipline seems to serve no obvious purpose but fans of the genre know Kaden's placement is no foolish mistake. Valyn is on the cusp of becoming a member of the special forces of the realm, a peerless assassin who does the work that conventional soldiers cannot. Their sister, Adare, has never left the capital, but her gender keeps her from wielding true power, though she is appointed Minister of Finance at her father's command. Scattered without allies they can trust, the siblings must deal with their grief of their father's death and find a way to stop the forces arrayed against the royal family and the return of an enemy long relegated to fairy tales.
Sounds pretty familiar, right? Long time fantasy readers have seen most of these tropes before, but that doesn't stop this debut from entertaining. The world building is well done, hinting at a more complex world beyond the borders of the sequestered life of the siblings. Valyn's training with the Kettral is particularly entertaining and I was pleased to see a non-stereotypical type of soldier in this sort of European setting. There's no armor, jousting, or any of the other knightly business in evidence and it was a welcome change from my expectation. There's a definite coming of age vibe to the siblings journey, though most of the steps along the way were nothing I couldn't have predicted I enjoyed the process due to Stavely's deft storytelling. Kaden's austere training in the monastery
The magic system was a definite standout. Magicians, called leeches, draw on a source of magical power for a variety of effects. These sources, called wells can be almost anything from a rare physical substance, an environmental feature, or something more unusual such as a specific emotion. Since a leech cannot perform magic without his or her well, these sources of power are closely kept secrets with leeches going to great lengths to obscure them. The system is so flexible and encourages reader speculation when any magical effect is seen. With leeches being a persecuted and maligned group within most parts of the empire, there is a definite sense of secrecy and risk associated with the supernatural which hopefully will keep the series more grounded reserving magic for more occasional use.
Staveley's characters are compellingly familiar and well written, though I have some reservations about his use of the female characters. Adare, despite being stationed at the center of the fallout after the Emperor's assassination has almost no screen time. While her eventual revenge on her father's killer is one of the most rewarding moments in the book, I feel Adare deserved much more screen time than her brother's training sequences far from where the most important action was happening. Adare seems to have much more potential for new storytelling options, and hopefully she'll see more page time as the series continues. As it stands, she seems not much more than a missed opportunity. The other female characters, seem to occupy the stereotypical female roles in genre fiction, namely as a sexual object or a catalyst for the male character's actions. Which is a real shame, because many of the female Kettral could have been seen so much better use. There is a passage in which Valyn's love interest rages against his overprotective nature and blaming himself for her misfortunes that seems to point to Staveley's awareness of these stereotypes and I can only hope that he steers away or subverts them the future.
But even with the familiar cast, plot, and problematic treatment of his female cast, The Emperor's Blade is an engaging debut with plenty of unmined potential. I enjoyed my time in its pages and will check out the second volume. Will it be the next big thing in epic fantasy? I couldn't hazard a guess, but the combination of industry buzz and Staveley's easy storytelling style will all but ensure it will find a sizeable audience.