The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you haven’t read the first book of the trilogy, you can read my spoiler free review of The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley (Book Review) instead.
You can also click here for my review of the second book of the trilogy The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley (Book Review)
While Kaden and Adare have established some frail form of leadership over the Annurian empire, the Urghul army, ead by the god of pain Meshkent in his human host Long Fist and deadlier than ever, is steadily advancing towards the gates of Annur. The only man capable of standing against the brutal enemies, Ran Il Tornja, has his own agenda. Meanwhile, the Csesstriim, the long forgotten about and recently risen ancient race that used to rule the world, are threatening the people of the empire. In the midst of it all, three siblings are trying to survive, protect the people and save humanity from anihilation.
In his fantasy debut, tilting heavily towards the young adult direction, The Emperor’s Blades, Brian Staveley introduces the Malkeenian children and an empire in the brink of disaster. Valyn, the eldest son has been training since the age of eight, for a place in the military order of the fearless Ketrall. When his father, the Emperor, is murdered, Valyn despite being the oldest son is not the rightful heir to the throne. His brother, Kaden, a monk apprentice in an isolated monastery in the mountains has the distinct golden eyes and thus has full claim to the Unhewn Throne. Neither of the young men though is anywhere close enough to Annur. Their sister Adare, is the chief finance minister in the Dawn Palace and, although she also has the same golden eyes as Kaden, she knows very well that women are not allowed to sit the Unhewn Throne. Still, being the only Malkeenian descendant in the palace, she is determined to find her father’s murderer and uncover the plot against the Malkeenian line. It is safe to assume, Adare, Valyn and Kaden are in danger.
“There is always another war.”
The Providence of Fire picks up from where The Emperor’s Blades left off. Valyn and his wing have headed to the monastery in Ashk’lan to warn Kaden on the grave danger his succession to the throne has brought upon him after the coup. They are stranded on the Bone mountains along with Triste and decide that the best way forward is to split up once more. Kaden is to ask for help from the mysterious, solitary monks called the Ishien while Valyn will take his wing to Annur. At the same time, Adare has finally uncovered that Il Tornja is behind the assassination of her father and is making her way out of the palace in search of an army that will follow her against the approaching Urghul threat. She ends up finding unexpected allies and forming a strong and unlikely friendship with Nira and Oshien, the last immortal leaches who explain to Adare that Il Tornja is actually Csestriim and has been influencing the history of the Empire for many years. The book ends in a climactic showdown where Kaden is in charge of the city of Annur where he establishes a republic while Adare and Il Tornja are in the north fighting the Urghul. It is finally revealed that Triste is actually the body host of Ciena, the Goddess of Pleasure, who is looking for Meshkent, the God of Pain.
“The moments are all that matter, Jak. People talk about lifetimes, but lifetimes are built out of moments. The decisions we make, the ones that matter, the ones that get people killed or keep them alive…” She snapped her fingers. “They’re that fast.”
The Last Mortal Bond opens about a year after the concluding events of the previous volume. The Urghul have made their way closer and closer to the heart of Annur under the command of the host of Meshkent. It seems that Il Tornja is the only one able to successfully strategise against the threat of the invading army. But, although Il Tornja is defending Annur, his hidden motives involve the death of Ciena and Long Fist, the host of Meshkent. Ultimately, the extinction of humanity and the rise of the Csestriim are the driving forces behind Il Tornja’s actions. Brian Staveley, however, does not concentrate on war, stratagems and tactics. Rather, his focus is on his characters and the plot, a path he has clearly chosen in his first two novels and follows in the final one, too. Any hinderance in The Last Mortal Bond can be blamed, for a big part, in the weak plot severely lacking in innovation, from the first two books. Still, this third volume is a promise by the author to expect better stories to come.
That was the mystery at the heart of all power. Power appeared to be something that a ruler had, that she held, that she had taken from the people. The appearance was false. Power was something people gave, gave willingly, even if they didn’t know it, even if they resented it.
Indeed, The Last Mortal Bond shows a sharp incline in all aspects of storytelling. It begins with Adare who leaves to the capital to symbolically unify the newly formed republic Kaden has created. She leaves her infant son under Nira’s protection but Ran Il Tornja kidnaps him. The Csestriim has now gained tremendous power over Adare’s actions and can use her to get to Ciena or Triste who is a prisoner in the impenetrable prison on Intarra’s Spear. Meanwhile, in the republic, Adare realises that the people have been turned against her creating a huge divide between the two siblings. With a weak plot built over the first two books, the improvement is evident in the final novel. Staveley does not hesitate to send his characters out on their own, away from the comfort of a fixed outline. Valyn was last seen on the brink of death and his fate remains to be seen while Gwenna has taken command of the wing and brought together the three remaining Kettral that went rogue in The Emperor’s Blades.
“Suffering,” she said again. “Pain is suffering because we want to be free of it, and pleasure is suffering because we fear to lose it. Fools search for freedom, but there is no freedom. There is only the embrace. You say you are blind whenever you do not fight, but you are always fighting.”
There is an obvious improvement over the world-building whereupon the map has finally sprouted life and history blends with different places and peoples in creating a multidimensional, solidly conceptualised fantastical world that was desperately missing in the previous two books. This great improvement is emphasised by the easy narration, the decent flow of the prose that is appropriate to the genre and was evident already from the first contact with Staveley’s work. Elements of Staveley’s prose include his apparent attempts to give off an air of indifference to the violence and brutality. The humor is vastly improved along with Staveley’s description of places and scenery. The author takes his time in pacing the plot, building around it, providing images, ambience and personality to the novel. He finally his the spot with the female characters without over-trying, and gives life to more advanced, multilayered and well presented personalities. But where these improvements have clearly been implemented, one is still left wondering what the Urghul are supposed to be doing all this time outside of Annur and, out of necessity, arriving to the conclusion that they only exist to offer a logical explanation over the happenings in the plot.
“You have my thanks,” she managed, the words like tar on her tongue.
It was a good lesson, if she somehow survived to remember it; silence had its own violence; some reigns ended in blades and fire; some with the barest nod of a head.
It is after two volumes demanding some effort to get through and a third vastly improved installment that we arrive at the end of the trilogy where Staveley conveniently wraps up things way too fast in a poorly conceived and executed ending. In the fantasy genre, the finale of such extensive ideas and worlds is difficult to be brought to a decent end, and Staveley resolves to an abrupt completion offering resolution for only a chosen few. My conclusion over the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne: admittedly, I do not see why the hype is so high over this trilogy. A reader seeking to be introduced into the fantasy genre might find the books interesting and they definitely offer an easy entrance into the fantastical world but I would not recommend these books to seasoned SFF readers as what they have to offer can be found in abundance in titles with better results – like Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy to make a direct comparison of debut trilogies.
There are, however, redeeming qualities in Staveley’s work that grant me willing to pick up later pieces of his work that I believe will offer a higher quality view over his abilities as a fantasy writer.
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