The Last Mortal Bond – Out With A Wimper

51fjxpqqg1l-sx316I 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

Maps: A Discussion with Brian Staveley

The Map for The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Written by Brian Staveley. Drawn by Isaac Stewart.

Maps – They are one of the most basic elements of fantasy books and something almost everyone enjoys. I had the extremely good fortune to chat with the incredibly talented Brian Staveley, author of The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire, about what he thinks maps add to fantasy books. We discussed two questions:

  1. What is the goal of a map in fantasy?
  2. Do maps make a promise that the author should do their best to keep?

To begin, I want to take a moment to acknowledge both Brian Staveley and Isaac Stewart’s work on the map in The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. The map’s level of detail, variety of terrain and accuracy of scale are all impressive and effectively brought this fantasy world to life. When I asked Staveley if his map was something he put a lot of work into, or if he was just a naturally gifted cartographer, he replied:

“I’m a fool for maps. I refused to use the GPS — I have a road atlas instead. Whenever I go somewhere new, I need to look at the map. My sport of choice over the last decade or so has been adventure racing — which involves finding your way from place to place using a map and compass. Given all that, I was pretty invested in the map-making for my own world, and I spent a lot of time as I write actually using that map. I’m constantly calculating things like ship speed and Kettral speed and horse speed over all different sorts of terrain in all different conditions. If the events of the book don’t fit the map, you’re breaking the promise you made to the reader.”

But why is a map so important to get right? In my opinion, it feels like a map’s purpose is first and foremost to anchor the reader’s immersion in the new world. It is the key to understanding locations and quickly grasping fundamentals in a book such as going east is harder than going west. It allows the reader to see for themselves that there is a river to be forded and helps get into the mind of characters. A map is also important because it makes topography permanent. When there is not a map, authors have a lot more liberty with locations because terrains can be changed and altered. However, when you have a map, suddenly landscapes become permanent and cannot change to make journeys easier to write. A map makes a world more real and less able to bend to the writer’s whim.

Turning to Staveley’s point of view on the primary purpose of a map, he commented:

“I think a map does a few important things. The first is the most prosaic: a map makes things easier on both the reader and the writer. The old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words seems to dramatically underestimate the worth of maps. I’d put a good map somewhere around ten thousand words. Any book worth its salt can stand without the map, but the map allows a writer to convey a wealth of information very efficiently. More, it puts most of the geographical information in the same place. Instead of asking the reader to stitch together two dozen passages scattered throughout the novel in order to get an accurate sense of the world, the map puts all that information in the same place.

So that’s what a map does literally. Metaphorically, however, the map is a promise to the reader. It’s no coincidence that almost all fantasy maps come at the start, before the text itself, rather than in an appendix or afterword. The fantasy map promises that the book contains a new world (or an interesting version of a familiar world), one that is rich, varied, and fully imagined, and that the world will be explored over the course of the story to follow.”

But, then I ask, does a map promise more than just new world? I would argue that some authors are too aggressive in their scope and map out entire worlds that they have no intention of exploring in their novels. In some cases, I believe that it can leave the reader frustrated and unfulfilled to see large areas of land that are never mentioned and never explained, doomed to fade into descriptions like “that area to the north that we know nothing about.” Should authors feel obligated to shine light on every corner of their map? When I asked Staveley his thoughts on the matter he said:

“In making my map, I wanted to create a world with enough scope to tell this story, and other stories to follow. While we won’t explore the whole thing during the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, we’ll get a good look at almost all this terrain in the next five years or so. I could have waited until I got to those stories to expand the map (and, indeed, I’ve left room for expansion to the south and east, and over the pole), but I wanted even the small references I make in this trilogy (to places like Freeport, for instance) to fit with other tales to come, tales that might actually be set in Freeport. That meant I had to imagine this entire section of the world in one go.”

I think Staveley makes an excellent argument for large sweeping maps with unexplored land. I think he also shows there is a difference between leaving white space for future books and making an overly large map simply to shock and awe. Does that mean that authors cannot expand maps? Of course not. Series like Blood Song by Anthony Ryan and Half a King by Joe Abercrombie do a great job expanding their maps as their stories progress, and it works incredibly well for them. However, there is something to be said for an author who shows you their entire atlas at the beginning of their story and gets you excited about every single river, valley, mountain range and kingdom you are going to explore and visit. Regardless, maps are important. As an author, you should give a map the time and attention it needs to be a visual representation of your novel. As a reader, you should pay attention to these beautiful works of art because a good map will make you appreciate every mile on a road.

P.S. I want to give special credit to any author who takes the time to provide mini-maps of cities. Huge sweeping maps of the world are less useful if a novel spends 90% of its time confined behind some walls.