In the course of introducing each of the stories in his classic Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, Bruce Sterling laments the death of cyberpunk. Published at what would be considered the middle of the cyberpunk wave (looking strictly in terms of what was published when), Sterling’s words may seem misguided. But that would be to miss the point: Sterling was referring to the artistic death of the subgenre. Any wave needing to recede into the ocean before it can officially be considered over, the latter half of cyberpunk is indeed more imitation than cutting edge. Sure, slight adjustments, changes of angle, and fuzzy connections to other sub-genres were introduced. But as a whole, the most unique ideas of cyberpunk came about when the wave was moving toward the shore—a moment Sterling seems to capture in Mirrorshades. Epic grimdark another such wave of genre, Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, given its unoriginal outlay, must be considered as washing back into the ocean.*
“On the coattails of a dead man, she’ll ride, she’ll ride… On the coattails of a deadman…” So run the lyrics of a Primus song. With Tom Waits’ baritone haunting the background, it’s a dirge that echoes The Emperor’s Blades epic grimdark re-re-rehash. If you’ve read George R.R.Martin, R. Scott Bakker, Ken Follett, Joe Abercrombie, etc., etc., then you’ve read The Emperor’s Blades. Staveley brings some writing chops to the table (more later), but the offering is threadbare in terms of singularity. Even the series’ title hints at the passing: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Having to resort to a negative adjective, you can almost hear the kettle drums booming in the distance.
Setting the rehash tone for The Emperor’s Blades, the prologue features a father speaking to his terminally ill daughter, the latter begging for her life as he holds a knife to her. “Love,” Tanis repeated, tasting the strange syllable, revolving it on his tongue as he drove the knife in and up, past the muscle, past the ribs, into her galloping heart, “like hate—it is your word, daughter, not ours.” Oooh. Grim. Dark.
I thus hesitate to summarize plot as. it. all. sounds. so. fa.mi.li.ar. The coattails tattered and dragging, everybody knows the GRRM outlay: harsh world, uber-evil bad guys, royalty without an easy life, surprise character deaths, medieval realpolitik, violence and gore, evil and egoism, hack, splat, backstab, double-cross, and voila, grimdark v.312.2.45. Point blank: the word “blood”, or variation thereof, appears 168 times in the novel. In other terms: once every three pages. I struggled and struggled to find some redemptive value to the text, to find it interacting with something beyond “this is a last ditch attempt to capture the fading zeitgeist of a sub-genre, i.e. commercial success, i.e. money”, but could find only that: Staveley is not a bad writer in terms of technique, everything else: been there done that.
Thus, to give dues, Staveley is not a terrible scribe. In fact, I would say his prose and narrative structure are the only things that allow the reader, yawning at grandpa grimdark, to keep reading. The diction neither lush nor elegant, it nevertheless keeps the ball rolling at an even pace—just enough precision to set the scene but without too much detail to bog down the narrative. The moral buttons are BIG, allowing the reader to cheer and boo characters easily. Lexically flexible, part of the ball rolling is also Staveley’s proper usage of a thesaurus; the big words are used appropriately, and the similes, as eye-rolling as they are out of context, fit the mood. (Among them are, “voice like a file rasping over stone”, “like wearing lace into battle”, and “as lighthearted as the flash of an assassin’s blade”.) All in all, the mode is rehash grimdark, but at least clean and dressed in proper clothes.
Before closing the review, it’s worth mentioning gender presentation. Staveley can be lauded for introducing strong female characters to The Emperor’s Blade—at least superficially. As always seems the case with grimdark, one wonders whether they are truly female. This is not to say all the female characters should be nursing babies or gossiping over tea, rather that replacing the pronoun ‘she’ with ‘he’ in almost all the cases changes little. Lin, Pia, and Gwynne are just some of the guys. Their jokes, stance, attitudes, etc. feel very male. Emphasizing this male-ness of the narrative is the sexualization of female characters and lack of reciprocation. Several times Staveley reverts to the tried and true method (apparently) of discussing the appealing curve of a woman’s breasts and hips. None of the male characters, at least none that I caught in my notes, get described in such sexual tones. Topping all of this off is that Staveley is unable to avoid characterizing his female characters as the big three: whores, warrioresses, or beauty queens (with the notable exception of Adare). “Whore”, or variation thereof, is used 60 times in the novel (only three times for “son of a whore”). This means roughly once every ten pages the idea of “dirty woman paid for sex” appears. All in all, Staveley has good intentions for including strong female characters but cannot escape the typical male epic fantasy mindset of how to portray women. Grim. Dark. Juvenile. (And did I mention the oft used oath “Kent kissing” is one phoneme away from being the most vulgar word in the English language?)
In the end, The Emperor’s Blades is just like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, et al. It simply re-shuffles the common ingredients, polishes the prose a little, and presents them anew but is far from the first to enter the water. A two edged-sword (ha!), if one likes Martin et al and is looking for more of the same, they will find it in Staveley’s novel. If one, however, is looking for something more cutting edge (again, ha!), more original, more thoughtful, then the novel will only disappoint. “On the coattails of a dead man, she’ll ride, she’ll ride…”
*Wait! Wait!! I speak too soon! Just today I see there is a new Grimdark Magazine (trying to squeeze the last drops of money—err, entertainment—from the phenomenon. Sure to be a shortlived affair…)