I really liked The Emperor’s Blades, by Brian Staveley. The novel debuted in 2013 as the start of the epic Unhewn Throne trilogy, and is a good part of the reason I consider 2013 one of the best years for new debuts I have experienced. Now, three years later, the finale to the trilogy has arrived in the form of The Last Mortal Bond. For those of you unfamiliar with the series it follows the three children of an emperor who is preparing his heirs to take over rulership of the country. He sends one child to be trained as a monk, one to be trained as an assassin, and keeps one with him to train in statecraft. The first book opens with the emperor’s death, and follows the story of the three children as they attempt to hold the country together using their training, and uncover their father’s murderer. The first book, The Emperor’s Blades, focuses on each child in isolation, and their training. The Second book, The Province of Fire, thrusts the children into the world with differing ideals, and shows their clash as they wrestle with different schools of thought and their attempts to reunite with their siblings. Finally, the third book, The Last Mortal Bond, brings the epic story to a conclusion as the story showcases the deeply developed children as they band together using their different mentalities to solve the crisis plaguing their nation and avenge their father. Or that’s at least what I wanted to happen in the final book. Instead, The Last Mortal Bond provided an enjoyable experience but one that, to me, does not fully deliver an ending that was promised by books one and two. Many of these problems come from narration choices by Staveley that I do not understand, and heavily detract from the story, but I will get to that further on. To begin with let’s start with the good.
One of the absolute strengths of The Unhewn Throne is Staveley’s incredible and inventive world building. The monks, assassins, and cities have extremely well developed cultures that are original and fascinating. Staveley has recently announced a spin off book about one of his characters and I am super excited simply to hear more about that part of the world. In The Last Mortal Bond, we continue to see new and interesting places and experience awesome new cultures that sucked me into the book. That being said, I also want to bring attention to a slight negative in Staveley’s worldbuilding. Despite his ability to create incredible places, Staveley does a poor job of setting up his world to be explored later. It often feels like the first time we hear about new nations, cities, and people, are seconds before the characters meet them and this leads to a feeling of deus ex-machina.
A second major strength of the story is the character development. As mentioned previously, each of the children is on a journey to learn a different school of thought and then take it into the world to see what happens. I really enjoyed how each character changed and grew through The Providence of Fire, but I do not understand what happened to this development in The Last Mortal Bond. I feel like I was supposed to learn a lesson in this series about respecting different methods to solving a problem and about how arrogance is a bad thing, but the third book seemed to lose all cohesion with the character arcs. Some characters continued growing as I guessed they would in the intro to this review, some regressed to pre-training mentalities for reasons I do not understand, and some just stopped growing completely. In the end it left me incredibly frustrated and confused as to who the three children were supposed to be, making it hard to understand some of the plot points at the end of the book.
While I could accept and ignore the problems I mentioned above, there were also some alarming narration choices that heavily detracted from my enjoyment of The Last Mortal Bond. In the final book of the trilogy, a new antagonist rises to prominence and starts waging a war of terror on the land. Despite the fact that stopping this antagonist is what 50% of the body of The Last Mortal Bond is devoted to, he has literally a single line of dialogue in the entire book and the only time that is spent with him is from extreme distances, while he stands menacingly on hills. This does not make a compelling villain, at all. In addition, The Last Mortal Bond, and the trilogy as a whole, spends a lot of time building to some final climactic moments – that horribly underdeliver. One in particular, where a major fight between two major established characters, happens just off screen (literally down a hallway from the POV because she stopped to tie her shoes), actually made me angry. I read thousands of pages to see them fight and it was a massive let down. Finally, the Unhewn Throne feels almost like a murder mystery for most of the series – making you guess at what is actually going on. I did not find the reveal to be particularly impressive, especially in light of how inventive and creative Staveley has proven himself to be.
In the end, The Last Mortal Bond disappointed me heavily. I had high expectations for this novel, but with The Last Mortal Bond I felt like Staveley and I were simply not on the same page. In addition, based on how quickly lots of plot points were wrapped up I got the unpleasant feeling that Staveley simply had gotten tired of writing it. The Last Mortal Bond has been getting stellar reviews since its release, and I am incredibly glad others are enjoying it as I like Staveley’s work. However, for me the finale of The Unhewn Throne was a miss and I hope that I will enjoy Staveley’s next work as much as I enjoyed his debut.
Rating: The Last Mortal Bond – 5.0/10