Normally I write Feek posts in a state of rage. Today is a departure from that. If anything I felt optimistic reading Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, because, although I consider its gender depictions problematic, at least I could see that the author was trying.
Sadly (?), this does not lower my desire to be snarky in the slightest.
The Emperor’s Blades is Staveley’s debut, published in 2013 by Tor. The UK edition has a generic fantasy cover which bears absolutely no relation to the novel’s contents, and a tagline which may have been written by someone who had never even picked up the book. “Shaped by loss, forged in flame”.
It serves as the first part of the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne and has three POV’s from different siblings, Kaden, Valyn and Adare.
It is probably more accurate to say it has two POV’s and one tag-along extra. Most of the novel is taken from Valyn’s perspective (at a guestimate, about 50%), then Kaden’s (about 40%), leaving a paltry portion for Adare. I counted; she gets 5 chapters out of 50 (for those interested, 7, 19, 25, 46, 49). These chapters are also shorter than average.
When I picked up the book in the library (“what is this blasphemy, a book published in the last decade!”), I was particularly interested in the substantive part of the blurb that spoke to her character. “Minister Adare hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice.” This sounds excellent. Then I read the book and there were no court politics at all. Or any real hunting, tbh. They kinda knew who the murderer was from the get-go, so…
(Or did they? Dum dum dum DUM!)
(Yeah, this is all in the line of spoiler warnings I’m going to issue. Continue reading at your peril.)
Adare’s chapters don’t serve much purpose; her narrative strand consists of a literal trial by fire of a priest, who, it turns out, wasn’t guilty of murdering her father. (See the utter shock and disbelief plastered across my face.) This doesn’t have any impact of the rest of the story, and as a result, feels like it might have been tacked on at the last moment.
The sad part is that I could have really enjoyed Adare’s strand. As the book feels the need to constantly remind us, she’s the first female Minister in a patriarchal system, and let us also not forget that she cannot be Emperor because of her girly bits. So I guess the result is that she’s going to be Emperor by the end of the trilogy. Either that or they renounce monarchy for democracy, take your pick.
But I wanted to see her doing her damn job, actually. She’s the Minister of Finance and yet she’s seen doing squat on the running of the nation’s economy. Instead she broods about the regent, then flirts with the regent, then sets some random oke on fire, then sleeps with the regent, then (to my SHOCK) discovers that the regent was probs the one who off’d her dad. Then she sleeps with the regent some more. Maybe if she was given more chapters, we could have seen Adare achieving something other than batting her eyelashes and being angry about this upstart priest who is just sooooo disrespectful, but no.
And if you are thinking, ‘well, finances are probably boring,’ allow me to present to you Kaden the Monk. You’ll remember he received 4 times the pagetime? What does he get up to in this great allocation of chapter space, you ask?
Basically, he makes a lot of pottery and digs holes and goes for runs and takes baths and thinks about stuff and thinks about not thinking about stuff and does other monk things. Everyone knows the Emperor is dead, except for Kaden, who is busy with trying to achieve enlightenment and lives upon a pimple out in the ass end of nowhere and suspects that his teachers might not be telling him something. Does this sound interesting? It is not.
The book might have been better served if it just kept to Valyn’s perspective – he’s the assassin-in-training – but at this point it’s worth considering how on earth the imperial line has survived for so long. With the heir (Kaden) being buried alive by his teacher so he can learn about not being a person, and the spare (Valyn) getting tortured trained to enter the military elite, it’s kind of amazing that they got a 24th successor in the Malkeenian line. Quite apart from the miracle of their survival, from a service delivery standpoint, you’d think it would be helpful if they had more training in governance and less in pottery. Why have the people not revolted yet?
Valyn is training to be Kettral, which is the name of an elite combat unit that travels around on giant birds. Each crew of Kettrals (I’m not sure how plurals and definite/indefinite articles work here) forms a Wing, which is a five man band of the usual suspects. Most of the story is Valyn working to graduate from the assassin school, which seems like it would suffer from a really high drop-out rate. He knows there is a plot to kill him and Kaden and maybe-Adare-but-probably-not-because-she-is-a-girl-and-thus-cannot-be-the-emperor, but luckily for him, the assassins trained on assassin island apparently really suck at assassinating. No one seems very motivated to kill the royal heirs. Maybe the conspirators think that, if left to their education, the system might effectively wipe out the princes anyway. I’d go with that.
Aside from Adare, the book has five other female characters worth mentioning. Ha Lin, Gwenna, Annick, Pyrre and Triste. Ha Lin (sometimes just Lin), Gwenna and Annick are Valyn’s classmates. Valyn is smitten with Ha Lin, who we actually know very little about, which initially seems odd. Then she is fridged and you realise she existed pretty much to serve as Valyn’s motivator.
People threaten to rape Ha Lin a lotttttttttttttttt. No one actually does, but the threat of sexual violence dominates her interactions with Valyn’s antagonists. The author uses this as an opportunity to explore Valyn’s responses to the threats, and whether they are justified. Ha Lin calls him out on him appropriating her anger, which I found a pleasant surprise, hence my optimism about the book. However, after Ha Lin is murdered, Valyn goes right back to his quest to avenge her honour (SO MUCH OF RAGE), so it all ends up feeling a little shallow. Staveley wanted to write a righteous knight in shining armour, but he also wanted to address the problem of heroic males, and it did not quite come together in the end.
Foreshadowing of Ha Lin’s doom arrived, for me at least, in the form of Gwenna, redhead fireball with curves of (repeated) note. I can’t quite place why, but from their first interaction, where Gwenna is very cross that Valyn isn’t observing correct safety protocol, I have been reasonably certain she’s the true love interest. At the time, my thought was something to the effect of “y’all are going to pork in book two”. Watch this space.
Gwenna’s response to life is fury and haha, guess who’s the team’s demolitions woman? In terms of adhering to archetypes, the book really does nail it. The mage (or ‘leach’ in this world) is the calm, measured type, the archer is focussed like a locust, the pilot is reckless and carefree. Gwenna thus far has the emotional complexity of an active volcano, but I’m guessing she’ll show her softer side when next Valyn is in peril.
Annick is the book’s unsurprising surprise lesbian and I have nothing else to say about that.
Pyrre and Triste appear in Kaden’s narrative strand, but I honestly don’t know if I can talk more about Monk on the Mountainside right now, so let’s just say that Pyrre is the crazy cultist who has been hired to protect His Royal Snoredom, and Triste is the beautiful woman who he does not sleep with in this book.
A large problem I have with the story is the bad guys. Boy, are they bad, and, um, boys. While female characters are uniformly on the side of goodness (I’m not really counting the two sentence reference to a female member of the UBER BAD KETTRAL WING TEAM GO), the figures of evil are all male. From the toasted priest, to the sexy-but-probably-a-murderer regent, to the blindfolded other priest who seems to control legions of giant spiders, to the blond (so blond, so very, very, very clearly stated as blond) team captain who probably definitely killed Ha Lin, to the bad mage who eats feelings, to the traitorous royal guard, they are all united by the fact that they are men. Men, and men who are mostly interested in the possibility of sexually assaulting anyone passably female.
They are also united by stupidity.
WHY IS NO ONE KILLING THE PRINCES? DO YOUR FUCKING JOBS!
It’s like they are actively trying to avoid murdering the Malkeenians. Valyn, in particular. Two months on assassin island, which must be the most hazardous place on the planet, and all the Uber Bad Kettral Wing Team succeeds in doing is collapsing a bar after Valyn has left it, and tying a complicated knot in a training exercise which fails to drown him. They also leave a trail of neat clues along the way.
Guys, let’s huddle. Let’s believe in ourselves. We can do this. We can kill this idiot. All we have to do is put in a teeny bit of effort.
They also take credit for making Annick shoot him, which is honestly just lazy.
However, things aren’t much better in the Murder a Monk division. Instead of walking into town and jabbing Kaden with a sharp implement (which would have mercifully brought his narrative strand to a close), the bad guys throw him a party and issue him with a Triste.
Triste, noun. A shatteringly gorgeous teenage girl who everyone wishes to sleep with.
Triste is supposed to serve as a distraction so they can murder Kaden inside the snazzy sex tent they have constructed for him in Monkland. Once Kaden is otherwise occupied, then they can kill him. Genius, genius, I tell you! But then Kaden and Triste run away and the bad guys are all “Oops. Didn’t see that coming.”
At this point, Valyn arrives and is “I WOULD LIKE TO RESCUE MY BROTHER NOW WHY IS UBER BAD KETTRAL WING TEAM HERE YES TAKE MY WEAPONS AND I SHALL BE DEFENCELESS YOU MUST BE THE FORCES OF GOOD”. This turns out well for him.
Now they have Valyn trussed up like a chicken and they Still. Aren’t. Killing. Him. The reason given is that Bad Leach Who Eats Feelings needs a ready stock of pissed Valyns to work his magic. Why they can’t kill Valyn and utilize the frankly livid Gwenna for this purpose is never fully looked into, probably because then Valyn would definitely be dead, and I think we’ve all come to the conclusion that no one wants that.
Option B, to limit the possibility of a jailbreak, would be to off Gwenna and co. Bad Leach Who Eats Feelings explains they aren’t doing that because maybe Blond Team Captain wants to have sex with them later, maybe, so just chill everyone and don’t try to escape or anything, oh noes, they have escaped.
Kaden, who has by this point succeeded in becoming not a person, arrives and shoots the Bad Leach Who Eats Feelings. And Valyn, for having feelings. Don’t worry, Valyn lives. He is only unconscious for thirty seconds, then Kaden slaps him and this is beginning to look like domestic abuse.
Annnnd back to Adare, who has had a truly lovely time bonking the Regent of Evil.
For Feek’s sake.