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October 26, 2013 / minusbar

Author Interview: Brian Staveley (The Emperor’s Blades)

Author Interview: Brian Staveley (The Emperor’s Blades)

Today’s interview is with Brian Staveley! His debut novel, The Emperor’s Blades (book one of the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne), is scheduled to come out in March of 2014. I have the privilege of reading an advance copy and working with Brian on an anthology I created called Neverland’s Library. If the interview catches your interest, pick up his book and give Neverland a try as it has a story set in his Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series.


I live on a long dirt road in rural Vermont, where I divide my time between writing, baby-wrangling, running trails, trying to play the banjo, and various home repairs that multiply at a truly astounding rate. My debut novel comes out in March of 2014.
Get to know him at:

Bold writing – Me       Regular text – Brian

First, thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

My pleasure.

My first question is one that I ask in almost all of my interviews, since the standard bios tend to bore me. Can you tell me a funny true story about yourself?

Sure.  When I was writing the first draft of The Emperor’s Blades, I lived in Laos. There was a large hill in the center of the town where I lived – 274 steps to the top, if I remember correctly – and on top sat a small Buddhist monastery. When I needed a break from writing, I’d go run stair repeats on the hill. The monks at the top thought this was both perplexing and hysterical, and often a small crowd would gather to chant “Faster, faster, faster!” One afternoon, while trying to go faster, I took a fall near the top of the stairs. An older monk approached me to see if I was alright. He was shaking his head. “Not smart,” he told me, pointing at the stairs. “Not smart.”

Haha.. That also explains the large Asian influence on The Emperor’s Blades setting.

Yeah. I spent half that year in Loas, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and Thailand. I don’t think of Annur as analogous to any particular place in our world, but different aspects of those cultures seeped in…

So The Emperor’s Blades is your first novel, is this also your first published work? If so, I am quite impressed.

First novel, first published work, unless you count a few poems and articles on poetry that have appeared here and there.

So around how long had you been writing this novel?

A tricky question. I spent five years working on what ended up being The Emperor’s Blades.. but that time included the writing of an entirely different novel (with the same characters) that won’t ever see the light of day. I also have about 100K of material that follows an entirely different character in the same world. I would like to return to that at some point, perhaps as a stand-alone novel.

On that topic, can you tell me about something from a previous iteration that did not make the final cut of the book? I always find it interesting to see how a novel evolves and changes before the official release.

The first book I wrote began with Kaden’s departure from the monastery and Valyn’s departure from the Qirin Islands. It didn’t include Adare at all. Instead, there was a young Urghul girl forced to fight in the Killing Pits. The main antagonist was a different character. It was 300K words. And I planned to write seven books. That, needless to say, was not going to fly with any editor or agent in the world.

So what can you tell me about the inspiration behind the magic system you’ve created with leaches?

I want a few things out of my magic. First, the ability to use magic needs to affect the character of the people who use it on a fundamental level. The leaches in my book become so sensitive to and reliant on their wells (source of power) that many of their crucial traits and decisions are influenced by those wells. Even the “good” leaches are twisted by their abilities.

Second, I wanted magic that would offer the possibility for mystery and exciting reveals. The fact that each leach has a different well means that no one, reader or other characters in the novel, starts out with an understanding of who can do what when. This uncertainty opens up heaps of dramatic possibilities, most of which I’ve tried to exploit. There are strict limits on the abilities of leaches. Those limitations are revealed over the course of the books

Third, I wanted magic and magic users to occupy a very precarious place in the world. If you have wizards or warlocks or whatever that are extremely powerful by dint of their arcane abilities who also occupy a top rung of the social ladder, it’s very difficult for anyone to challenge them. I like the idea that magic users suffer from rampant social persecution. The natural place to look here was, of course, the treatment of suspected witches in Europe and America. Like those poor souls, the leaches in my book are hunted down and murdered. Except, of course, by those who think they can be controlled and used secretly for a larger purpose.

So what character was the most enjoyable for you to write, and vice versa?

So tough. My relationship with the various characters is much like my relationship with the real people in my life: sometimes I find them irritating, sometimes I love them, sometimes I’m curious about them, sometimes I want to hang out with them all day long, and sometimes I just don’t want to see them for a while. Each of the three siblings has something that the other two do not –different skills and neuroses, different goals and challenges – and that keeps me going back to all of them. I’m thrilled that Adare gets more air-time in Book II.

Yea, while she’s a main character, this book definitely felt like it was about Kaden and Valyn.

No doubt. Book two doesn’t feel like that at all. Adare is absolutely central, plot-wise, and I’m almost certain she has the most words and chapters devoted to her. I wanted the story to begin mostly on the periphery of the Empire to move toward the center. As it does, Adare’s role and decisions become more and more critical.

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about the bad-ass beasts you created? Especially those birds the Kettral fly on!

The Kettral (the name refers to both the birds and the soldiers who fly them into battle) are a result of my desire to incorporate something like modern special forces into a fantasy novel. Helicopters play a large role in modern warfare, and the Kettral became my helicopters. Like their modern equivalents, they serve as transports (usually five soldiers fly in a Wing) and actual weapons of war – the beaks and claws of a bird with a seventy foot wingspan are nothing to toy with.

Poachers would definitely be wary of that….

And I wanted monsters, so I put in monsters. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it was crucial to me that the nature of the monsters prove relevant to the plot. I didn’t just want big scary things for my characters to fight, but things that would change who my characters are, that would challenge them at their most vulnerable points.

I love Lord of the Rings, for instance, but  many of the monsters in that book seem a little arbitrary: the barrow wights, Durin’s Bane (the Balrog), Shelob. Don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderful, memorable, terrifying creatures, but it seems to me that each could just as easily been something else.

So one of the most fascinating aspects of the story, for me, was the concept of Vaniate, and how it relates to the God-like Csestriim creatures who men are descendant from.

In my pantheon, the young gods are the gods of emotion. Before the coming of the young gods, there are only the gods and the Csestriim, a race of creatures that live lives of perfect reason, unclouded by emotion. With the arrival of the young gods, the offspring of the Csestriim become “tainted,” at least to the Csestriim point of view. These tainted creatures are the first humans. They possess the rationality of their forebears, but all tangled up with the threads of emotion. Some humans, however, those who devote their lives to the study, can achieve the vaniate, a state of emotional emptiness almost identical to that in which the Csestriim lived their natural lives. The Shin monks have devoted themselves to just this pursuit, worshipping the mysterious Blank God, the oldest of the old gods.

For those who have yet to write a book of their own, how does it feel to control all of the political and religious strings in your characters life? Does the power get to your head?

Sometimes I feel like they’re actually pulling my strings. Especially in a multi-volume epic, you start to find you don’t have as much freedom as you might think. Decisions made by the character in chapter two of the first book need to be acknowledged in chapter twenty-two of the third, regardless of what I might prefer to have happen. I’ve been forced to chuck entire scenes that I really liked because they just weren’t consistent with events that are already there in book one. I would advise any would-be writer to consider the initial conditions and characters very, very carefully, because those conditions are going to affect events for the rest of the book/series.

Last question, and a very serious one. The zombie outbreak starts tomorrow. What’s your plan?

Get to an island.

There are a couple of movies in which zombies can cross water, but in most, water proves an absolute barrier.

Find the right size island in the right latitude and you can farm and fish quite readily. It’s defensible against human invaders.

I could go on. I think the medium and long term strategies are pretty clear. The crucial question, in my opinion, is what you would do in the very first hours. For instance, how long do you spend gathering supplies, trying to connect with friends and family, etc. That’s where you’re likely to make major and irrevocable mistakes.

Thanks so much for enduring my interrogation. Hopefully readers will be welcome on your island paradise, should the time come.

As long as they all have useful skills. After all, someone has to take care of the guy who spends all his time glued to a computer making shit up!


The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.



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