The Falcon Throne by Karen Miller, and The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

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I know, I know, there’s been a dearth of new posts on Taking The Short View for over a month – at least, until the drought was finally broken at the weekend with a new review of an old Hayao Miyazaki film. I can assure you that the lull hasn’t been down to any particular inattention or disinterest on my part, but more to do with the fact that I simply didn’t find anything to review or to write about in February. The television programs I was watching were all on-going series that I’d covered here in the past, and much the same applied to the things I viewed on DVD/Blu-ray. There were no film or show outings to speak of either.

I have been merrily reading away, but here my time has been taken up with two fairly long books. They’re both quite similar and in the same genre (fantasy) and neither of them have been entirely successful in satisfying me. I don’t like to be too harsh about books – as the product of one person, the criticism of a book invariably feels more personal than that for a TV show or film where hundreds if not thousands of people have been involved – so I wasn’t in a rush to write up my thoughts about them. But seeing as there’s a scarcity of other material, I guess I’d better knuckle down to it…

The Falcon Throne by Karen Miller

falconthroneOr The Falcon Throne: The Tarnished Crown Series – Book 1 as its full title would have it, making it perfectly clear that this is the first in another fantasy saga rather than a standalone book in its own right.

I want to start off by saying that I had a perfectly pleasant time reading this, and that despite its length (almost 700 pages) I never once flagged or struggled to get to the finish. It’s a friendly, comfortable read that carried me along quite good-naturally – which is surely quite an accomplishment.

And I needed to state that upfront, because the minute I go deeper into the details, the more critical I quickly find myself getting. The Falcon Throne sets itself up as a huge sprawling epic with a cast of thousands across multiple continents, and yet delivers a remarkably small and small-minded tale set in the rustic backwaters of its imagined world where the main point of conflict between the Duchys of Harcia and Clemen feels more like two neighbouring farmers having a protracted dispute over where to situate the boundary line between their two properties. There’s even a quasi-bumpkin dialect created for the region that is written out phonetically, which may delight or infuriate the reader depending on individual preferences regarding that sort of thing; for the record, I learned I really don’t take to it.

Excursions outside these two locations are few and far between: in one case, a character hits the road for several weeks to ride to a meeting which lasts two hours, after which he turns around and has to come all the way back having achieving little of import except for a chance meeting that feels narratively important at the time but eventually turns out not to be in the slightest. This trip alone extends over several chapters, with the book itself unfolding its plot over nearly two decades during which time one Duke is violently usurped and another lingers on through increasing infirmity and ill health worrying about his choice of heir. (Clue: you really shouldn’t choose the blatantly evil one.) Characters marry although rarely happily or for long, while others are born and age up to the cusp of adulthood.

Clearly there should be rich pickings for drama with such a set-up, and yet oddly very little happens. Or rather, the same things threaten to happen and then subside, and then swell again a few pages (or years) later, and back and forth until finally in the last 50 pages everything that has been teased and hinted at during the course of the book finally slots into place and it all starts kicking off. At which point, Miller appears suddenly super-keen to shut things down as quickly as possible in order to leave a cliffhanger for book two, where apparently all the juicy stuff might actually await us after the teasing phoney war of book one.

I got the strong feeling here that what I was actually reading were Miller’s world-building notes for her series, the kind of thing that the author should always have in the back of their mind but rarely show – the submerged part of the iceberg where the reader should only ever get to see the tip. Here, there’s very little in book one that wouldn’t have fared better if it had been withheld from us and drip fed into the story later on, the actual story itself ideally starting pretty much where this one is just wrapping up. The axiom of “get into a scene as late as possible” screams out here, because plot that could have been presented as stunning backstory revelations ends up instead feeling slow, plodding and unimaginatively linear. Worst of all there is no self-contained sense to this novel, which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an incomplete first part of a much longer tale. Even with that in mind there wasn’t much of a feel of any unique, individual world outside of the drab environs of Harcia and Clemen, despite the inevitable presence of a standard-issue fantasy world map at the front of the book. It all comes across very much like a straightforward medieval stand-in with a few forays into fairy tales such as a tragic prince held prisoner in his castle and some black magic plotting orchestrated by an unseen dark lord through his on-the-ground witch accomplice.

There’s a more crucial problem with the characters. For one thing, there are remarkably few of them for an ‘epic’ story – the different locations have a small cast of half a dozen different prominent players which are remarkably unchanging despite the passing of years. More disappointingly however is how thin these characters all are: it’s entirely possible to write down a one-line description of every one of them when you first meet them, and that description will still be entirely true without the need for addition by the end of the book. No one changes or shows hidden qualities: bad guys stay bad, good guys stay good, and those racked with doubt continue to be from beginning to end. You can pretty much draw a straight line from where they start to where they end up and you’ll be absolutely right; any promising diversions that might actually bring some life and unpredictability to the narrative are quickly euthanased so that they don’t rock the boat.

Surprisingly there are no real stand-out female characters – the most promising gets a good introduction but is then shipped off for most of the rest of the book, presumably with a bigger role to play in the second instalment. That leaves the evil Wicked Witch of the Marches as the only strong female presence in the whole thing, while the men may be more numerous but little better brought to life for all that. Miller also has an unfortunate habit of correctly identifying those characters that we have come to most like, and then killing them – often off-screen. By the time we get to the final pages there were few left that I really felt I actually wanted to spend any more time with.

Fans of battle scenes won’t take to this either. Miller seems generally disinterested in accounts of physical action and so fights are described in an abstract impressionistic fashion (“swords clashed … people cried out … blood was spilled … teeth flew through the air … the battle was over”) rather than in any detail, leaving us to fill in the blanks. That can be an interesting stylistic approach to mix things up in a long book, but when it’s the only presentation on offer it ends up looking like a weakness.

On the whole then it appears that The Falcon’s Throne has little to recommend it and was a total bust. And yet, and yet – it’s still true that I read it to the end and enjoyed it well enough, if admittedly in a somewhat diminished expectations capacity. For all my critical comments it clearly had something about it, and Miller’s writing is well paced and readable even when the plotting and characterisation stutters.

The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

emperorsbladesAnother book with a longer full title, in this case The Emperor’s Blades: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne – Book One which goes to show that this is in a very similar vein to The Falcon Throne.

In fact in many ways this is a mirror image to the previous book. Much stronger both in its vivid writing style and in terms of world creation and intricacy of plot, it also boasts characters that are immediately much better thought out and more complex than anything Miller has been able to create thus far. And yet for all its superiority in those areas, ironically it was The Emperor’s Blades that I struggled to get through and found myself putting aside for days at a time for other reading material, then begrudging the time I spent on it when I did get around to picking it up again. Despite its shorter length (only 400 pages in this case) it proved the longer and harder read of the two.

This apparent contradiction between the two books is actually quite easy to explain: where The Falcon Throne is utterly undemanding like watching Murder, She Wrote in the evening in preference to a David Attenborough documentary, by contrast The Emperor’s Blades is far more ambitious – and at times it pays the price for its intricacies.

Unlike Miller, Staveley has clearly invested huge amounts of time in creating his imaginary world right down to almost microscopic detail. In terms of places actually visited in person during the course of the first book, Staveley probably doesn’t feature any more in number than we get in The Falcon Throne. However that doesn’t stop him from stuffing the text full of tidbits about the wider world at every opportunity. It’s as though he starts his writing day by looking at the inevitable map at the front of the volume and thinking to himself, “Oh, I haven’t yet said anything about the types of trading in Lin, or the history of uprisings in Freeport, or the current state of the conflict with Anthera.”

There’s an appendix in the book outlining the hierarchy of the different gods all of whom have their different adherents, and any time a new character arrives is an opening for a treatise on that person’s faith, their unique skills and training as a result. In addition there are a lot of made-up words with a faintly faux-Arabic or Asian feel to them, so many that to be honest they start to blur together and become difficult to tell apart – a glossary would be a nice addition to the second book if they are to continue to build up.

As well thought-out as this world is, there’s nonetheless a bit of a careless lapse with the use of magic in the book. It’s set up that each practitioner of magic (known as a leech) needs a specific source from which to draw their power (such as water or gold) but their actual capabilities are left far from clear. That means many of the revelations that the narrative depends on end up being “Oh, it was magic.” That proves to be a bit frustrating and not a patch on the way that the likes of Brandon Sanderson clearly define and delineate the magic system in play in a given story, which at least gives us a chance of keeping up with what’s going on. If magic appears to enable anything and everything in a story, then the stakes and tension on offer to the reader suffer proportionately.

While all this world-building can become a bit of a slog if you’re not really in the mood for it, at least Staveley keeps the central plot of the first volume nice and simple: The Emperor’s Blades opens with the assassination of the reigning Annurian Emperor, and there is an ongoing conspiracy to now also kill his male heirs in order to complete the coup. Kaden and Valyn, along with their sister Adare, are our three point of view characters throughout what follows, although they’re scattered across the empire and it’s only at the very end that any two of them finally meet.

Staveley does stumble into an unfortunate problem with the way that he’s structured this first volume. Following a young hero undergoing arduous and potentially deadly training as a young novice/cadet is an already overly-familiar regular trope of the fantasy genre, and Stavely uses it not just once but twice in this story with both Kaden and Valyn undergoing parallel trials as they approach maturity. Kaden is being beaten into the art of meditation by a band of austere monks in the inhospitable Bone Mountains in the north, while Valyn is undergoing combat training with the empire’s equivalent of the SAS which utilises giant kestrels for aerial warfare and long distance transport. Unfortunately, rather than adding diversity to the story, the two threads end up clashing and feel repetitive. Meanwhile, Adare – who as Minister of Finance in the Annurian capital should be at the very heart of things – is sidelined to such a degree that her appearances are few and far between, and painfully ill-developed as a result. This is very much a boy’s tale, it seems.

The other key problem that Staveley falls into in this first volume is that his principal characters – our heroes – are unbelievably stupid. Of course, no one wants to read a story in which the protagonists are fully-formed from the get-go and are practically perfect in every way, since where is the dramatic interest in that? But every one of the three leads in this volume makes so many bad calls that frankly you start rooting for the bad guys, because at least the villains know what they’re doing. They are also rather good at it especially compared to the Keystone Kops antics of Kaden, Valyn and Adare who never knowingly make a bright, well-informed or remotely correct choice, at least not until the very end. It’s really not credible that Valyn could have been assigned command of his own fighting wing and have so little grasp of how to lead; or that Kaden would need reminding by a young novice about a hidden vantage point that he himself had uncovered a few years previously. Meanwhile Adare is apparently determined to show that she is as capable as any man by being unable to control her emotions causing her to have a conspicuously public neurotic meltdown and an ill-advised love affair. Even their father, the dearly departed Emperor Sanlitun, is guilty of spectacular misjudgement by knowingly walking into a deadly trap that will get him killed while leaving his uninformed children vulnerable, having already handed over key positions of power to those he suspects of plotting against him. With this level of incompetence on the part of the imperial family as a whole it’s no wonder that the subjects are starting to feel it’s about time for some regime change; I have to say, I rather agree.

All this is an indication that the character arcs have been planned out over multiple volumes, and that we therefore have to start at the very bottom of the characters’ learning curve in order to leave room for what is to follow. That said, The Emperor’s Blades itself has a better self-contained feel than The Falcon Throne because at least the main plot line regarding the immediate clear and present danger to Kaden and Valyn has been resolved, allowing the surviving group of characters to look forward to what they have to do next. Rather than an irritating cliffhanger arbitrarily placed in the middle of events, the final pages of the book feel more like the end of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring as plans are made and everyone goes their separate ways.

In conclusion

I suppose the ultimate test of the qualities of these books is whether or not I will pick up the second volume in each series and read on.

For all its ease of reading, I can’t say that I’m in the slightest rush to read the next part of Miller’s Tarnished Crown series and to be honest I have little interest in what happens next to the remaining characters. The plotting of the story so far has been so obviously linear that I feel I can already extrapolate it far enough forward to have a good sense of where it will go. Then again, there’s also every chance that now she’s worked through all the unnecessary backstory, Miller has a stronger narrative in mind and some surprises in store. While I wouldn’t exactly rush out and buy the sequel, I wouldn’t turn it away either; and if I were to come across a cheap copy at some point in the future then I wouldn’t be averse to sitting down and seeing if it can weave its easy reading spell over me a second time. After all, I really am a big fan of watching Murder, She Wrote re-runs in the evening and indeed of cosy crime fiction as a sub-genre, so why can’t we have cosy fantasy as well, as a warming antidote to the surfeit of gruelling ‘grimdark’ that’s flooded the market of late?

As for Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, I’m much more inclined to seek out and read the sequel which is actually already out in bookstores, entitled The Providence of Fire. For one thing, having put in all that effort to get to grips with all the locations, religions, factions and terms that the author has used to populate the Annurian Empire, I kind of feel I deserve some pay-off for all the hard work that I’ve invested in it to date. Moreover, with Staveley having held back some key character developments until late in the day in book one, I find I now want to know just how the characters are going to change and adjust as a result – something I can’t say about Miller’s currently one-dimensional characters. I’m just hoping that we’re past the “everyone is unbelievably stupid” stage now that they are well away from their respective training environments and into the ‘real’ world where things should get much more interesting. Most of all, the hanging plot points about the deadly conspiracy against the imperial family and the hints of ancient Lovecraftian evil powers reawakening and stirring in the darkness make me keen to find out more.

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