Thursday, March 05, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Championship Round :: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley vs. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

We have arrived at the championship round of our current bracket of the Battle of the Books. In one corner we have The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. In the other corner we have Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. Two fine competitors. I (Aaron) have read through Page 200 of both these books, and the novel I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 Books.

The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is the first book in Staveley's Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne high fantasy series. The second book in this series, The Providence of Fire, was published in January 2015. The Emperor's Blades made it to the championship by conquering The Barrow by Mark Smylie in the first round, defeating Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald in the second round, and an upset win over Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer in the semifinals.

The first 200 pages of The Emperor's Blades are told from the points of view of Adare, Kaden, and Valyn, the daughter and two sons of the Emperor, who has recently been assassinated, apparently at the hands of an ambitious religious leader. Kaden is the heir to the throne but still does not know of his father's death, because he has been training in a remote monastery, with monks who hold the sacred duty of guarding the world against strange creatures who fought mankind in an earlier age now shrouded in myth. Valyn, who has been training with an elite corps of soldiers, believes there is a conspiracy against his entire family; he has already faced two attempts on his life. The daughter Adare is embroiled in politics in the capital city, where her father's presumed killer plays a gambit to avoid punishment.

Words of Radiance:: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 1080 pages, cover art by Michael Whelan. Words of Radiance is the second book of Sanderson's epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. (The Way of Kings is the first book in this series.) Words of Radiance made it to the championship with a solid win over Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager in the first round, a victory over Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson in the second round, and a hard-fought win over Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg in the semifinals.

The primary viewpoint characters through 200 pages of Words of Radiance are Shallan, a young woman traveling by sea with her mentor Jasnah Kholin, while learning about the magical spheres called spren; Kaladin, the leader of a group of soldiers of the human kingdom of Alethkar, who is just learning about his own magical powers; and Kaladin's commander, Dalinar, the real power behind the throne of Alethkar. There has also been a short interlude with glimpses of other characters, including one of the Parshendi, a strange race of metamorphic creatures. Alethkar has fought the Parshendi since they assassinated its previous king, and Kaladin and Dalinar are preparing for further warfare. Meanwhile, Shallan's ship is attacked and she believes Jasnah to have been killed, although the careful reader has cause for skepticism.

The Battle: Going head-to-head in this championship match we have two high fantasy novels. Multi-volume series of epic fat fantasy books are not my personal favorite sub-genre, but I can appreciate any kind of SF/F when it is done well, and through 200 pages both The Emperor's Blades and Words of Radiance are written exceptionally well.

Staveley and Sanderson both eschew standard elves-and-wizards fantasy plots in favor of original and intricate storylines, and each author does a wonderful job of conveying those complicated storylines in a way that is easy to follow. They also both write action scenes very effectively.

An interesting point in common is that near the end of their 200 pages, both books reveal an almost science fictional subplot involving quasi-alien beings. In The Emperor's Blades, Kaden has just been told that the gentle monks he lives with have been waiting for thousands of years for the return of vicious, amoral creatures who were once the enemies of mankind with control over interdimensional portals. As he learns this, the reader realizes that these creatures appeared in the book's previously opaque prologue. Meanwhile, Words of Radiance has just given us a glimpse inside the minds of the Parshendi, explaining why they murdered the previous king and showing their struggle to regain the forms they used to be able to metamorphose into, before the forms were lost when the Parshendi escaped their former masters. I am intrigued by both storylines and wish to read more.

But the Battle of the Books requires me to make some distinction to justify choosing one book to continue reading to the end. Let's do some nitpicking . . .

Both novels seem to have interesting magical systems, but while The Emperor's Blades has avoided giving much detail about how magic works in this universe, The Words of Radiance has shown us a lot about the nature of magic involving the spren. It's an intricate system, so much so that I found it quite believable that Shallan could employ the magical spren to destroy an entire ship, but then utterly fail in her attempt to use magic to build a fire. The magical system scores a point for Words of Radiance.

Let's look at the authors' respective writing styles. The prose in both books is overall nicely done, but one might expect an occasional misstep from Brian Staveley, as the debut author here. Instead, Staveley's storytelling has struck me as pitch-perfect, while Brandon Sanderson on occasion strains a bit too hard (to my tastes) for his imagery, e.g., "She needed to speak with him. She felt an urgency to do so blowing upon the winds themselves." Score a surprising point for Staveley, and we're all tied up.

As it often does, the Battle comes down to characters. Which author has created characters that have come to life for me, so that I need to know how their stories play out?

Shallan in Words of Radiance is that kind of character for me. I find her believable, sympathetic, strong yet vulnerable, and just a touch flawed. At the end of 200 pages, she has been shipwrecked and will have to struggle just to survive, let alone to work her way back into the novel's larger story arc. I want to know how she will manage. I do not, however, feel the same kind of connection for the other viewpoint characters in Words of Radiance. In particular, I don't care an awful lot about the preparations Kaladin and Dalinar are currently making, and it won't bother me terribly much not to know what happens next in their joint storyline.

In contrast, I feel connected to all of the viewpoint characters in The Emperor's Blades. I love how both Kaden and Valyn have been trained in disciplines where their imperial bloodlines are ignored. This has made both of them humble and sympathetic (but they are certainly distinct from one another), yet ironically has now left them both in great danger. At the same time, their sister Adare has stayed in the capital city and has definitely not learned her brothers' humility. And yet her goals are just, and we can sympathize with her frustration when it appears her father's killer may get away with his crime. Staveley has drawn me in, on an emotional level, to all three viewpoint characters' stories. I very much want to keep reading every page of The Emperor's Blades. And that's what the Battle of the Books is all about.

Huge congratulations to Brian Staveley on a most impressive debut novel!

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades wins Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 Books. Congratulations to Brian Staveley as our newest Battle of the Books champion!

To see the completed bracket, click here.

We've crowned a winner for this bracket, but soon we'll announce a whole new bracket of sixteen books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!

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