The Barrow: Pyr trade paperback, March 2014, 587 pages, cover art by Gene Mollica. The Barrow is fantasy set in the universe of the author's Artesia graphic novels. As the book begins, Stjepan Black-Heart leads a small band of ruffians raiding an ancient and (they hope) abandoned temple buried in a remote hillside. Among his group is Erim, a highly libidinous young woman masquerading as a man. Most of the group is looking for gemstones and other treasure, but Stjepan seeks a map to the legendary Barrow of Azharad. At the close of 25 pages, it seems he will have to fight his way out of the temple to claim the map.
As mentioned, Mark Smylie is the creator of the military fantasy graphic novel series Artesia. He is also an illustrator and the founder of Archaia Studios Press, a graphic novels publisher. The Barrow is his first prose novel.
The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is also medieval fantasy, Book One in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Through 25 pages, our viewpoint characters are Kaden and Valyn, the two sons of the emperor. Kaden is the emperor's heir, yet he is the one living a quiet life in a remote monastery. As the story opens, he finds a slaughtered goat missing its brain; when he returns to report, he is placed in the hands of a new and cruel master. Meanwhile, Valyn is in training with an elite fighting group who ride giant hawks into battle. They are investigating a ship whose entire crew was killed, when word comes that the emperor is dead.
Brian Staveley has taught and edited. As far as I can determine, The Emperor's Blades is his first published fiction.
The Battle: For once, we have an apples-to-apples comparison in the Battle of the Books. The Barrow and The Emperor's Blades are both epic medieval fantasies by first-time novelists. So what will set one of them apart to advance in the Battle of the Books?
Let's start with the prose. One expects a first-time novelist to have some ragged passages, and that's the case in The Barrow. Smylie's writing is often too wordy, beginning with a rambling first paragraph that could easily be condensed to half its length. In contrast, the writing in the opening pages of The Emperor's Blades is remarkably clean and confident, occasionally elegant. If I hadn't seen the author's name, I might have believed this the work of an accomplished fantasist like Daniel Abraham or Elizabeth Bear.
Next, the characters. In The Emperor's Blades, Kaden and Valyn both come across as very sympathetic in the opening pages, although I'll want to see some flaws emerge as we move forward. Meanwhile, in The Barrow, Mark Smylie seems to be building his main characters up as Joe Abercrombie-style lovable rogues. I like the concept, but I'm struggling a bit with the execution. In particular, the only distinguishing characteristic of Erim so far is that she is incredibly horny. The very first passage from her point of view has her getting wet thinking about three men she heard in a tavern boasting that they had all violated a prostitute at once. Certainly there's nothing wrong with a female character being interested in sex, but that doesn't strike me as something that would turn many women on. If it does turn Erim on, is that really the very first thing we need to know about her?
Through 25 pages, the worldbuilding in both books is just getting started, but already the universe of The Emperor's Blades is capturing my interest. Part of that is some nice scenery, like the great flying hawks. But it's also partly because Staveley does an excellent job of hinting about this universe between the lines. For example, the fact that the emperor's two sons live far away from the capital and are hard at work, not at all treated like royalty, says something interesting about this society, which makes me want to read more.
Finally, let's talk about the storylines. The first 25 pages of The Barrow are building up to an underground battle, while at the same time letting us know where the story will go next: a quest for the ominous-sounding Barrow of Azharad. That is a solid opening for Battle of the Books purposes. The opening passages of The Emperor's Blades show us the emperor's two sons in separate remote locations and introduce two bits of intrigue: who or what did in that goat and who killed the crew of that derelict ship? Then, unexpectedly, the very last line of the opening 25-page section is, "The Emperor is dead." The lives of our young main characters are about to be turned upside-down. This is such a pitch-perfect way to end the opening section, it's obvious Brian Staveley wrote his book with the Battle of the Books in mind.
THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
The Emperor's Blades moves into the second round, where it will take on Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald.
To see the whole bracket, click here.