Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades was a pleasant page turner, that kept me hooked from page one. Staveley is a good wordsmith–not the best, but he has better command of the English language than most writers of fantasy fiction. I learned half a dozen new words reading his prose, but he still writes in a fluid style that makes the novel enjoyable to read.
Staveley’s magic system is decently original, but it isn’t the emotional heart of the book. Staveley doesn’t make the reader feel the emotions of the magic users nor delve into their sensations when using magic, which is unusual for fantasy writers.
What is original is Staveley’s examination of selflessness and the pedagogy of the Shin monks, which is draws from Buddhist teaching about the abandonment of the ego. The book is about coming of age for each of the three siblings, where each becomes more than their training, but also discovers that they have violated the ethical system in some way. To survive and vanquish their foes, the sister Adare has to go beyond legalism and rule of law; the heir Kaden has to overcome the self aggrandizement inherent in being emperor, but he also has to abandon the pacifism of a monk; and Valyn has to violate the role of honor-bound knight and embrace the darkness of being a vengeful killer. In other words, the protagonists become filled with more shades of gray as the book progresses, as their morals are challenged and often traversed.
The chief failing in my opinion, which is a common failing of most fantasy fiction, is that the morality and emotional conflict of the antagonists is never explored. While the good guys become less “good”, the bad guys stay cookie-cutter foils. It is hard to understand the motivations of the Kestrals and religious faction who ally with the Csestriim. The conflict between church and state could have been a very interesting motif of the book, but Staveley never fleshed it out. Staveley should have explored the feelings and motivations of the Kestrals who betray of their years of training as protectors of the empire. The only antagonists whose motivation is credible are the Csestriim, but their inherent inhumanity makes it impossible to explore their motivation on an emotional level. In other words, evil is evil because it is unexplainable and unexplorable.
In history all actors, even the ones who are labeled as evil, justify to themselves why their actions are necessary and even “good”. They may want power, money, prestige, etc., but they also have ideas why what they are doing is “right”. The Nazis killed 11 million Jews, communists, Slavs, homosexuals and Gypsies in the name of creating a racially pure society and avenging the past humiliation of the German people in WWI. Stalin killed 3.5 million in the great purges in the name of protecting the Communist state from internal enemies, that threatened to undermine the revolution. The US government killed 3.5 million people in Indo-China in the name of anti-Communism, killed half a million Iraqi children by embargoing Iraq between the Gulf Wars and lied to the American people in order to initiate wars in 1846 (Mexican attacks on American troops), 1898 (sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor), 1917 (sinking of the Lusitania), 1964 (Gulf of Tonkin) and 2003 (linking 9-11 with Iraq and WMDs). Evil is frankly boring, until it begins to try to justify its own actions, and that is where I think that The Emperor’s Blades fails most.
Sadly, Staveley has set up the principal antagonists, the Csestriim, to be inherently inhuman and incapable of feeling human emotion, so they can never be fleshed out on emotional terms, but I hope that future volumes in this trilogy will at least flesh out their motivations on intellectual terms, so that we can better grasp them as antagonists. Likewise, the motivations of the remaining human antagonists Balendin and Ran should be explored to improve the remaining volumes in the series.