First, it has to have a strong narrative voice, one that's both intriguing and entertaining. I don't want to be educated, talked-down to, or dazzled with unnecessarily embellished language. When I read a fantasy novel I want to feel as if the author is sitting in the chair across from me, spinning a story that he or she is enjoying just as much as me - and that's exactly how I felt with Staveley. That's not to say this is a casual or conversational sort of novel, just that it flows well and naturally, driven by a man who loves the telling as much as the tale.
Second, it must have compelling characters with either a slowly unveiled back story, or who grow and evolve through the story. With The Emperor's Blade we get a bit of both. Kaden, Valyn, and Adare, provide our entry into the story, with each chapter focusing on one of the Emperor's three children. Even though they are on the cusp of adulthood, there's still something of a coming-of-age story here, with the siblings growing significantly by the time the final page is turned. They're all strong characters, as admirable as they are likable. Each has been placed into a difficult situation, trapped there by duty and obligation, but even if there's some longing and resentment, there's no whining or endless complaining about their plight. Adare gets the least amount of page time here, and I'm sure some readers may frown at her role, I quite liked the way she was able to command a situation in which she's powerless to do more than watch and wait.
As for the slowly unveiled back story, that belongs to their leaders and their teachers, to their friends and their foes. Staveley doesn't weight the story down with too many characters, but he invests his time in making each of them complex and well-rounded. You may hate some of them with a passion - particularly some of Valyn's fellow cadets- but you'll still find yourself anxious to learn their secrets.
Third, a really great fantasy novel has to imbue me with that sense of awe or wonder. In some cases that's done with dragons or other mythical beasts, and in others it's done with acts magic or faith. There's a fine line between imbuing and overwhelming, however, and that's where so many authors miss their mark. Rather than putting the wondrous at the forefront, Staveley weaves it carefully into his story, keeping it secondary to the characters. There's the soaring birds that the Kettral ride into battle, and the ferocious slarn that live deep underground; there are leaches who can drawn on elemental and emotional elements for their power, and the monks who seem to have a very different power of their own; and then there's the old gods and the new gods, embracing different aspects of the realm in a really interesting dual mythology.
Finally, above all else, I need a story that's as deeply layered as it is compelling. If there's anywhere Staveley stumbles a bit, it's here, but only because I suspect so much of the story is yet to be revealed. We see the world through the eyes of Kaden, Valyn, and Adare, so we don't have the opportunity to ferret out plots and conspiracies of which they're not aware. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed what Staveley did here, particularly with the plots and counter-plots revolving around all three characters. The plotting and backstabbing amongst the Kettral was exceptionally well-played, and it's been a while since I've cheered quite as strongly as I did for Adare against Uinian IV, Chief Priest of Intarra. As if it weren't enough that the Emperor has been assassinated, there are some very personal vendettas to be survived here, in addition to the royal ones, and the way in which they all cross in the end is as rewarding as it is surprising.
Like I said, if this isn't the debut of 2014, then I'd really be surprised. This is epic fantasy for a new generation, gritty and grim at times, but never losing sight of the awe and the wonder. I'm honestly not sure where Staveley intends to take the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne next, but The Emperor's Blades has guaranteed a space on my shelf for subsequent volumes. Take a chance, pick it up, and read a few chapters - enough to meet all three offspring - and I guarantee you'll find yourself putting off other things to read 'just one more chapter' well into the night.
Hardcover, 480 pages
Expected publication: January 14th 2014 by Tor Books