Sunday, February 15, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Semifinal :: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley vs. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Our first semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books features The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley going against Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is the first volume in Staveley's Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne high fantasy series. The Emperor's Blades made it to the semifinals with wins over The Barrow by Mark Smylie and Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald.

The first 50 pages of The Emperor's Blades introduced us to Kaden and Valyn, the two sons of the Emperor, who has just been killed. Kaden, the heir to the throne, does not know of his father's death, because he has been training as a monk in a remote monastery. Valyn, who has been learning to be a soldier, suspects a conspiracy that will target Kaden and Valyn next. In the second 50 pages, we meet the sister, Adare, just named Minister of Finance per her father's dying wish. This is as high as a woman can advance in this culture, but Adare is not sure the other ministers will accept her. Meanwhile, Kaden and Valyn face ever more challenging training, and Valyn discovers a key clue about his suspected conspiracy.

Annihilation:: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, February 2014, 195 pages, cover art by Eric Nyquist. Annihilation is Book 1 in VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, which continues with Authority and Acceptance. Annihilation made it to the semifinals with wins over The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten and What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton.

The opening 50 pages of Annihilation showed an expedition of four women, never referred to by name, entering the mysterious Area X, which has bested eleven previous expeditions. Our narrator, the biologist, descended into a way-creepy tunnel (strangely called "the Tower") she believes to be a living organism. She also learned the psychologist in the group is using post-hypnotic suggestion on the others, which no longer works on the biologist, perhaps due to contamination from the Tower. In the next 50 pages, our biologist-narrator and the surveyor discover the anthropologist dead in the Tower. Our narrator blames the psychologist, who promptly disappears. The narrator sets off for a derelict lighthouse to which she suspects the psychologist has fled, only to find evidence that Area X is even more bizarre than they realized.

The Battle: This is about as fair a fight as we ever get in the Battle of the Books, two books that are both opening volumes in very promising fantasy series. In terms of subgenres, The Emperor's Blades is more prototypical high fantasy, while Annihilation is on the stranger side of fantasy, consistent with Jeff VanderMeer's longstanding association with the New Weird.

Through 100 pages, I am enjoying both The Emperor's Blades and Annihilation very much. They are both well-written and engaging.

Brian Staveley's writing style is right in my sweet spot. He does not deliberately strain for flowery language, yet his word choices are usually perfect to convey the mood he wants. Here, for example, Adare listens to the eulogy for her father, the Emperor::
The words spoken before the tomb were as long-winded as they were meaningless, and Adare let them wash over her like a frigid rain: duty, honor, power, vision. They were applied to all Emperors in all imperial funerals. They failed utterly to capture the father she had known.
I wish I had written that.

Meanwhile, in Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer does a terrific job of building a strange and mysterious mood. We have little idea where or when this is happening, and none at all why. For the most part, I've found the strangeness and mystery intriguing, but an author treads a fine line withholding this much information from the readers. For me, all the secrets got to be too much when the narrator mentioned, over fifty pages in, that her husband was in a previous expedition to Area X. That came across as a writer trick--no way would a real person have failed to mention that before.

I like Annihilation on an intellectual level. I like The Emperor's Blades and its characters on an emotional level.

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades advances to the championship to face either Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg or Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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