Do you like your men manly and your Strong Female Characters™ helplessly victimized by smarmy almost-rapists? Do you like medieval Starship Troopers-esque drop marines dropping from giant birds to screw shit up? Well, in that case, The Emperor’s Blades is for you!
I will say that Brian Staveley’s first published book is honestly quite good in a lot of ways. Faster paced than a lot of epic fantasy I’ve read over the years, it has a great premise: a ‘trouble in the Empire’ story which begins with the murder of an emperor and which is told through his three children: Monk Boy, who is the heir to the throne and is neither a very good emperor or a very good monk; Valyn, who gets his ass kicked around the Kettrel training grounds like a sullen angry teenage football, and Useless Princess-Minister, who has a uterus and gets emotional at inappropriate moments.
I… really do wish that was an exaggeration, but that’s pretty much all she does. Oh, and her intricate and clever plot to avenge her father’s death? It fails miserably. Because emotions.
The fact that I can recall only one of the main character’s names gives you some indication of the main problem. The characters all manage to talk a lot, but there is very little exploration of them at this stage in the series, which is an impressive feat in a 479-page book. The majority of characters in this novel are definitely drawn from TV Tropes—the Badass Monk (I kept thinking of Dragonball Z), the evil ugly priest (Palpatine), the sneaky smartass thief brat—but I was able to forgive much of this for the lovely prose and general composition of the plot. Each perspective does smoothly advance the dark, gruesome and genuinely tense plot, and it was definitely the plot that carried this book for me. The characters sort of spontaneously transform instead of growing. I could forgive that, too.
But then… there were the female characters.
First, we have Lin, the Victimized Asian Woman. Supposedly the toughest sword-fighter in her class, she never wins anything except a black eye, panders to the lead male character, is beaten, sexually harassed (and unable to defend herself), humiliated, and eventually tied up and murdered with no way to defend herself. Her assertions that she can take care of herself? Yeah. So much for that.
Then, there is the murdered whore, who is… dead. There’s a sociopathic lesbian with no backstory, no emotions except outrage, and little actual dialogue. There are brief appearances by Sexy Sorceress, Angry Redhead (who is apparently very voluptuous, as we are repeatedly told, but who also lacks backstory), and even a Whore With A Heart of Gold. She’s alive because she’s still a virgin, I guess. In other words, it’s an anime harem romance setting, with a random best friend guy who is pretty much just the driver for Valyn and his Hot Fox Squad.
There is one female assassin near the end of this book who pretty much rocks… but just because there’s always an exception to the rule doesn’t mean the rule isn’t pretty strong. The short of it is, you don’t want to be female in Staveley’s world. I have a sneaking suspicion she dies in the next books somewhere.
So basically, I have mixed feelings about The Emperor’s Blades. I bought it on impulse after reading the start and being very impressed with the fast-paced, intriguing initial pages, but the novel never quite fulfilled the promise of the prologue. Despite these issues, I read it cover to cover, with occasional breaks to relieve myself of the things that irritated me. The author is an excellent writer in all other respects; the prose was fluid, elegant, never stuck-up or patronizingly simple. The worldbuilding was solid, the plot interesting and well-paced. I enjoyed the onion-layered villains. The two lead male characters were fairly well developed, and if you’re into that sort of straight-dude objectification fantasy thing, it probably won’t bother you that they’re the focus of the narrative—but it did bother me.
You can find The Emperor’s Blades on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.