When you’re reading a book, do you ever feel like you’re obligated to finish it? That if you just read one more chapter, you’ll come across a beautiful gem of a scene and it’ll make the previous eighty pages worth it? That was kind of how I felt with Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. It took me WEEKS to finish it. I would read ten or twenty pages at the gym (more on that later), then another ten or so pages before bed, then I went out of town and didn’t read it at all, and then I was hanging out with friends… The book didn’t immediately grab me like I had hoped.
The Emperor’s Blades begins with a harrowing prologue depicting a man, who we are told is an immortal being called a Csestriim, and his daughter, who has been taken by “the rot.” In other words, she’s become human, and has aged past her prime. The man kills her without affect, seeming almost bored. It’s grotesque and dark and…a little…cool.
In writing classes, one popular theory is to lead a story with a hook—something to grab your reader’s attention and compel them to read further. The Emperor’s Blades certainly does that. But the prologue gives the reader certain expectations about the following story, and The Emperor’s Blades does not honor those expectations. After such a chilling scene, I would hope the ensuing story would illuminate some details about why the Csestriim killed their human children, but instead we only learn that the Csestriim died out millennia ago. But wait! Are they returning at last? Were they even real to begin with? Who knows? Not our characters! The prologue doesn’t have any bearing on the story whatsoever.
Prologue woes aside, the book does have some things going for it. It’s cleanly written with few grammatical errors and no logic problems I can recall. The basic elements of the story—king is assassinated, his children are in danger, etc.—aren’t that unique, but make for a compelling narrative. And the settings of the world are varied and intriguing. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the characters. Most everyone in the novel has either a mysterious, icy cold demeanor, or an explosive and anger-fueled attitude. Some even have both. None of the characters are people I would want to work with, let alone be friends with.
So the heroes are unlikeable and angsty. What about the villains? If written well, villains can be the most interesting part of a story. Sadly, The Emperor’s Blades falls short in this respect, too. The four main villains appear uncomplicated, straightforward, and obvious. Two characters are originally set up to be villains, but are later revealed to be “good guys,” which is interesting…or it would be, if I cared about those characters at all.
If there’s one thing The Emperor’s Blades does well, though, it’s action. The last quarter of the book, it feels, is one unbroken action sequence. Despite struggling to get through the first two thirds of the book, I read the last third in a single sitting. The tension ramps up, the characters start piecing the villains’ plans together, and the novel really moves. Was it worth the wait? I thought so. Will others appreciate it? Honestly, I’m not sure.
In the end, The Emperor’s Blades felt like a solid 3 out 5 for me. It has several issues, but provides good entertainment, a few great twists, and a beautiful action sequence. I just wish it had gotten there sooner.