One of the things that sticks with me most from Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne is the amount of change and evolution seen in all the characters throughout the story. Sure, this happens fairly often in trilogies, but the scale of these changes in Unhewn Throne just felt beyond the standard: Staveley takes the three Malkeenians through the wringer, and we can see their characters evolve in line with the changing landscape and their experiences along the way.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t as blown away by the first book, The Emperor’s Blades, as some readers, but I could never deny it was an incredibly fun read. What held me back from loving it was simply that I wanted a bit more. I wanted it to be more unpredictable, I wanted the secondary characters to have more substance to them, I wanted to see more in terms of a strong female protagonist. That last one is certainly not required of books, but it is a huge plus for me as a reader. The description of Emperor’s Blades had my hopes up for one in Adare, but in that first installment she wasn’t quite there yet. Also, we really only had hints of what was involved in this world in the first book: we learned about Kettral and leaches, we learned about Annur and the Shin. But really, there was so much more to be revealed—it turned out what I really wanted was the next two books.
Spoilers ahead for the series.
The Emperor’s Blades kicks off the tale of three siblings, the Malkeenians. These children of the ruling king have been separated for years, each living a life quite unique from the others. They’ve also developed some serious sibling rivalry and trust issues between them—funny how attempted murder and treason can do that. The distance between them really alienates the siblings from one another, creating strangers among family. This is an important detail because despite being family, the unfamiliarity between these characters as adults really complicates their relationships. Had Adare and Kaden known each other better, The Last Mortal Bond would have been a much different book. Had there been some open communication between the two—if Kaden could have confided in Adare about Triste’s true nature, and if Adare could have confided in Kaden about il Torjna and Valyn—it would have saved so much grief. Of course, telling one brother you murdered the other may not put you on the friendliest of terms…
By the same token, had Adare and Valyn known each other better, The Providence of Fire (the second book in the series) could have had a much less tragic ending. Imagine how differently the events of The Last Mortal Bond would have played out if Adare and Valyn trusted and understood each other’s motivations in the previous book. Maybe Adare would have made the same choice and still tried to kill Valyn? But I can’t help but feel like she probably wouldn’t have. Maybe Valyn could have paused to hear her out, at least delay his plans of taking out Ran il Tornja, the brilliant general, father of Adare’s child, and a grave threat to the Malkeenians. Maybe Adare and Valyn could have joined forces and worked together in taking down a common enemy. Maybe it could have brought Valyn’s anguish level down to just unbearable rather than life shattering. So many things could have played out differently. But they didn’t know or trust one another as adults, and I really feel that made all the difference. So, backstabbing and throne-stealing it is! Seriously, these three siblings really manage to make a mess of their family.
Another interesting aspect of the series for me was that, because of the various changes that occurred in the characters and story, my favorite POV switched to someone new in every book. And I have to admit, I really enjoyed that. Challenges and loss may not redefine a character, but may shift their outlook and perspective on things. How they adapt can certainly impact their behavior and interactions, their choices on how to cope and approach problems—basically, the ways in which a character reacts to a challenge or adversity can impact absolutely everything.
Adare is the oldest of the Malkeenian children, raised in Annur at her father’s side, serving as minister of finance for Annur. She possesses the fiery eyes from the Malkeenian heritage, but being a woman in a land historically ruled by men, she is initially passed over as heir in favor for her younger brother Kaden. Following her father’s death, she finds her self in a tight alliance with il Tornja, who quickly becomes both her most trusted advisor as well as her lover. He has an incredible record for successful and strategic military campaigns, making him an invaluable asset for Adare—at least until she discovers that he is not what he seems and has an agenda of his own. In The Providence of Fire, she proves herself a strong leader with a good sense of political strategy.
At the outset of the series, I expected that all three Malkeenian children would get equal billing in the Emperor’s Blades, but turns out that Adare’s POV in the first book is used predominantly to give readers insight into the current political atmosphere and critical events in Annur (like the murder of her father). We are introduced to Adare, but find she is naive and not quite the strong female protagonist I was hoping for. She may be well-versed in the politics and administration of Annur, but she lacks any sense of savvy. Despite her book smarts at this point in time, she still needs to learn how to stand on her own, particularly when it comes to dealing with il Torjna. But, with two books to go, she has time to grow—and she certainly takes advantage of it!
I know a number of readers were disappointed with Adare’s smaller role in Emperor’s Blades. If I’m to be honest, I was thankful. I knew she was intelligent in many ways, but I found her frustrating. I wanted a strong female lead, and what I saw in Adare during Emperor’s Blades was naivete and gullibility. I found her chapters useful for the information they contained, but as a character, she was not my favorite.
But when faced with some serious adversity, Adare triumphs. The change we see in her between Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire was amazing. She learns to assert herself, she learns how to evaluate her circumstances and determine the best course of action. This change in her made sense and felt natural—you could see how her experiences motivated her to be better. She was determined to not be someone’s pawn again, like she had been for il Tornja. She is also an incredibly reasonable character; maybe because of her time in Annur, Adare is able to grasp how important it is to have the support of the people and also how to work to find a solution that will make sense on a wider scale. She is definitely not thinking of just herself in any situation, but of the wider impact and stakes.
Adare turns her betrayal by Ran il Tornja into a reason to grow a spine and become the character I was hoping she could be. The Providence of Fire is where she shines brightest: removed from Annur, she gains strength when left on her own, rather than simply appeasing her father or her lover. (Okay…maybe she wasn’t that submissive, but she was certainly naive.) Standing on her own, she devises a strategy and manages to gain allies—because she knows that without support, she is powerless, burning eyes or no. And some of her allies are absolutely fascinating additions to the story—Nira and her brother Oshi, in particular. They give us more information on magic and history, but Nira is also damn entertaining. I love her character, as she will just tell it as it is without prettying things up or adding niceties; Nira’s blunt nature is also wonderful for a bit of comic relief in some tense situations.
Honestly, becoming a prophet of the Goddess in Book 2 is kind of where Adare peaked for me. In The Last Mortal Bond, I think she suffers backlash as a result of the way she betrayed both of her brothers. These actions impact Adare deeply in the story, creating barriers and greatly complicating things between her and her brothers. It also gives the reader reasons to feel less than sympathetic towards her. With Kaden, her betrayal may not have been entirely intentional: she really didn’t know if he was alive or not, so she did what she felt she had to in order to preserve Annur…even if that meant taking the throne away from the brother who might still be (and obviously actually was) alive. But with Valyn? She still felt she was working in the best interest of Annur, protecting il Tornja out of fear of what would happen in the battle against the barbaric Urghal without him. But I don’t know that Adare is able to literally stab her own brother in the back and watch him plummet to his assumed death without feeling some level of remorse. She may conceal it fairly well, but I believe it takes a serious toll on her psyche. This choice of hers with Valyn also caused much of the tension between her and Kaden. Furthermore, the fact that il Tornja holds her son hostage and finding herself in a leadership position without the full support of those working with her really complicates things for Adare after her return to Annur. So while I still enjoyed her chapters and felt she remained a strong and compelling female character, things were much more complicated for her in the final book.
Valyn is the middle child of the Malkeenians, and the only one not born with the blazing Malkeenian eyes that mark their ruling line. He was sent at a young age to be trained as an elite warrior, one of the Kettral. Valyn survives the brutal training and passes his final trial. But when a conspiracy to overthrow the throne leads to an assassination attempt on him as well his brother, Valyn is forced to flee, taking his entire Wing with him. They sacrifice their hard-earned places in the ranks of Kettral, leaving everything behind. The remaining Kettral, who Valyn has worked so hard to be a part of, either assume he has fled as a traitor or are themselves part of the conspiracy. Once separated from his Wing, and stabbed and wounded by his sister, he finds himself truly alone, with no one to trust.
Valyn…holy fifty shades of completely broken Valyn. How did the character I loved so much in Book 1 turn into the Prince of Darkness and Despair, a solemn loner whose only pleasure seems to be his occasional naked knife fights/S&M sessions? Well, to be honest, I couldn’t even tell if he enjoyed these sessions with Huutsuu, a formidable female Urghal warrior, so much as they made him see, in spite of his blindness, and made him feel something—anything. It seems like he has suffered so much pain by the time we get to The Last Mortal Bond that he can’t respond in any sort of normal way. He has probably had it the hardest, out of the three Malkeenians, and unfortunately I think the torment just broke him, utterly.
In Emperor’s Blades, Valyn was easily my favorite POV. His chapters were exciting and full of action, plus we got to learn about the Kettral, the elite military order to which Valyn and his fellow cadets belong. I instantly liked Valyn; I was intrigued by the mystery woven through his storyline, and I just enjoyed reading what was essentially his coming-of-age tale. But we could clearly see Ha Lin’s death was going to be a defining moment for him, and there were also the physical changes he experienced as a result of the black slarn egg. Add to all of that the revelation that there are traitors within the Kettral, and his character is suddenly in a position where Valyn loses the support of his friends and allies, the comfort and protection of the Kettral, as well as his love with Ha Lin. He loses so much.
The Kettral training is grueling, making fellow soldiers more like family. They are certainly the closest thing to family that Valyn has known since he was small. So to be betrayed by Kettral and then forced to flee is a huge blow; he is faced with fighting off not just enemy assassins but also his fellow Kettral whom he respects—people who are just following orders in the midst of duplicity and confusion, such as The Flea’s Wing. He’s all too aware that a good man died in pursuit of him, and since he does not know what became of his own wing, he assumes the worst and it is almost too much for him. He loses not just the community he had amongst the Kettral, but also loses his sense of identity, and the source of his pride. This all clearly impacts how he acts in The Providence of Fire. But it’s the betrayal he faces at the hands of his own sister at the end of The Providence of Fire, when compounded by the loss of his Wing and the feelings of guilt over Laith’s death, that finally breaks him, and breaks him bad. The Valyn we see in The Last Mortal Bond is a completely different from the character we were introduced to in The Emperor’s Blades. Valyn’s chapters in Book 1 are full of excitement and action. Valyn’s chapters in Book 3 are full of regret and excruciating pain.
There is a brighter side to Valyn’s story at the end of The Last Mortal Bond, where it feels like he is finding a place for himself and recovering. He will never be the same person he was in The Emperor’s Blades, but neither will he be the down and broken character who suffers through much of The Last Mortal Bond. He is in a position to begin healing the relationship between Annur and the Urghal, as well as the broken pieces of himself.
Kaden, the Malkeenian heir, has been raised in seclusion by an order of monks in a remote mountain monastery. These monks live modestly but their training can be brutal. Under their guidance, Kaden learns how to create memories in incredible detail, achieving something like picture-perfect memory. He also trains to achieve the vaniate, a state in which he becomes completely devoid of emotion. After his father’s death, he is forced to flee, like Valyn. By the time Kaden gets to Annur, he finds that Adare has taken the throne in his place. He then moves to create a Republic to replace the Empire, destabilizing the government and essentially working against his sister.
Kaden comes across initially as the quiet, sensible type. I guess being raised by monks encourages that. Of course, the Shin are not typical in their training, and Kaden’s training in particular can be quite brutal. But it is brutal in a completely different way than Valyn’s training—where Valyn is taught battle tactics and physical endurance, Kaden is instructed in how to endure hardship and pain while maintaining complete composure and concentration in trying circumstances. In Emperor’s Blades, he feels that his mentor, Rampari Tan, is unfairly harsh, and far more demanding than the other mentors. No matter what Kaden does, it is wrong. No matter what question he asks, it is the wrong question. It is easy to see how this is frustrating, and Kaden questions the merit of Tan’s lessons, and sometimes his motivations as well. While Kaden is buried up to his shoulders for weeks, he can’t see what Tan is trying to teach him and it is only later that he gains enough perspective to see that Tan is really trying to help him understand. I can’t help but wonder if Tan’s training could have helped Valyn cope a bit better. While Valyn is being taught physical battle and survival techniques, Kaden is being taught how to turn off emotions and just endure pretty much whatever is thrown at him.
Of course, we do find there was a purpose to Tan’s training. And as it turns out, Tan is a fascinating character, one we understand and appreciate more as the series progresses (I love how Staveley is able to do this with his characters). Kaden uses Tan’s training to master the vaniate, a state devoid of emotion, enabling the user to achieve utter calm and clarity. This mastery of the vaniate is critical to the story, for it allows Kaden to use the same portals as the Csestriim, humanity’s ancient enemies, and also it is likely the only way he was able to defeat Balendin, the powerful and sadistic leach in league with the invading Urghal.
In the end, though, Kaden learns to let himself feel the emotion he was taught to avoid, and he finds love with Triste, who has faced her own torments as the human vessel of a goddess. Together they make the ultimate sacrifice. The ending we finally reach with him and Triste could never have happened with the Kaden we knew from Book 1.
There is Another…
With Valyn being my favorite POV in book 1 and Adare being my favorite POV in book 2, I couldn’t help but wonder if Kaden would be my favorite for book 3. It turns out that was not the case. While reading The Last Mortal Bond I may still have been fascinated with the Malkeenians, but when it came down to it, it was Valyn’s fellow Kettral warrior Gwenna that stole the show. While the Malkeenians were all trying pull the pieces back together, Gwenna was actually getting shit done. I have to add, she was one of my least favorite characters in Emperor’s Blades. But with each book, her character grew and became more fleshed out. She takes all the challenges and bad experiences thrown her way and uses them to become a better person. She is the one who emerges most triumphant through all the disasters.
Ultimately, what the reader finds as the saga of The Unhewn Throne progresses through all three books, is that we’re getting a much broader view of what is going on. We become aware that some characters are not human but rather, gods taking human form. In The Providence of Fire we learn more about the Ishien, powerful monks who are not exactly peaceful stereotypes. We learn more about the role of Csestriim and see their hand at play in all three Malkeenian POVs. For a series I was initially a bit unsure about at the outset, it turned into one of my most solid reading experiences, as I absolutely loved the surprising progression of the storyline, as well as the unexpected evolution of the characters.
Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne—The Emperor’s Blades, The Providence of Fire, and The Last Mortal Bond—is available from Tor Books.
A prequel novel, Skullsworn, is scheduled for publication in April 2017.
Lisa Taylor prefers books that have a dark side and is not a fan of happy fairy tales. You can find her blogging about books at Tenacious Reader and The Speculative Herald or you can find her on Twitter.