All right, so I finished The Emperor's Blades, the debut novel from one Brian Staveley, which was extensively touted over at TOR.com, where no less than seven preview chapters were published prior to the novel's release. I can understand they wanted to hook readers this way - I bought the book based on the premises laid in the first two of those teasers (I avoided the rest; the two first were enough to convince me). The opening of the novel, then, is pretty good at drawing you in, but unfortunately it didn't maintain that level of consistent quality all the way through.
The book falls square in the category of nice but not mind-blowing fantasy novels of the last years, with a somewhat bland setting with somewhat bland characters. There are some very neat concepts introduced in this particular one, such as the mystical vaniate, but overall the book could just as easily have shared setting with, say, Blood Song. Now, Stavely does strive for a different vibe, one of medieval China/Japan I suppose, but it's somewhat bland in the sense that it never really feels all that different from ye standard olde fantasy setting. Some names are definitely of an Eastern vibe, such as 'Shin' or 'kenarang', but in the same empire that uses these words characters are named Kaden and Valyn. Occasionally some decor is mentioned that is flavored with the East, and there are warrior monks and dramatic landscapes evoking for example China, but for the most part it felt and read like a traditional fantasy.
Like Blood Song, this novel deals with a military organization, but Staveley gives his own spin by giving them some impressive mounts. There is an order of ascetic monks who practice the absence of emotions reminiscent of a Buddhist tradition perhaps.
The novel alternates between three main POVs, three siblings: Adare, Kaden, and Valyn. They are all children of the titular Emperor. Adare is a girl, the two others are boys. Through them, we see the empire begin to crumble, and they have to figure out what's going on. For the most part, the three characters are geographically separated but at the end two of them come together.
At its best, The Emperor's Blades is really good. At its worst, its boring and somewhat cliché. Inbetween, there are many things going on, the plot never stalls, but sometimes I feel lost.
This makes it a hard novel to review. I'll trail the Amazon reviews to see if there are any sentiments I agree with.
Yes, I agree that...
...the magic system is something a little different, and hence, interesting
...the action scenes are few and far between
...that the characters don't seem to follow a natural arc/progression, the characterization is haphazard
...the plot is cliché (but I think there's a nice twist to some of the plot elements making it just different enough
...the story is shallow and never grabbed me, urged me to read on-it was easy to put the book away
...the story has too much exposition, and that it takes too long before things get rolling properly
...it was hard to connect with the main characters
...it feels a bit lazy at times
...the book might have felt better balanced if Adare was given as much time to shine as her brothers
Yeah. That's about it.
I'd rate it a 3.5/5