The story is told from the perspective of three characters who are children of the Emperor. There's Kaden who lives with a bunch of monks in the most inhospitable and remote region on the planet. The monks of course are complete bastards that beat up their charges and practice monkish philosophy in the sense that they are trying to completely empty themselves of all emotions. There's Valyn who's out in the middle of this god-forsaken ocean on some remote islands training to be a Kettral warrior (the Kettral make navy seal training pale in comparison). And then there's Adare who's the lone daughter who lives in the capital city. Pretty much at the start of the book the Emperor dies, and pretty quickly, it's concluded that he was murdered. As the book unravels, mysteries in all three storylines are cleverly spun and the super intelligent and athletic characters uncover the clues along with the reader in excellent real-time, so you are there for all of the surprises and the "Eureka" moments, figuring things out pretty much at the same time as the point of view character does. It's that clever. Really, I never found myself ahead of a character, unraveling something before it was revealed (and I consider myself a pretty astute reader). And Brian Staveley's prose is so good.
In Valyn's storyline, he's a cadet in training to become a Kettral warrior. This is named after the great birds that these cadets fly (also called Kettrals) with a wingspan of some 70 feet. One person rides on the back, and then four others (part of the Wing or squad) hang onto the claws using straps and performing various duties. One person is a sniper, another is a leach (which is a human with magical powers that are drawn from a source and can do all kinds of things), a third is the flyer, the fourth is the wing leader/commander, and there's a fifth person that kind of has a jack-of-all trades skillset.
Because Valyn is a prince, he gets all kinds of crap from the other cadets and some even go as far as hating him. About the same time as the emperor gets assassinated, he almost gets killed when an inn/tavern he's inside of tumbles into the sea. Later, he and his best friend (a female cadet called Ha Lin) conclude (correctly) that it was someone trying to assassinate him. This leads them to follow clues that lead to a grisly murder scene and where they've gathered enough information to conclude that one of the Kettral cadets must be trying to murder him.
The training Valyn has to go through is brutal. When he finally takes the Trial of Hull, he's essentially been through five days of sheer torture where he and the other cadets have been pushed to the literal brink of physical and emotional exhaustion. They are dropped off on this island that none of them have ever seen and taken to the entrance of a gigantic labyrinth of caves. Suspended above this massive entrance (a hole if you will) is a cage containing a pair of monsters called slarn. Each of the cadets has to let the slarn bite them, and their poison is so virulent that if they don't get the cure, it essentially cripples them physically for the rest of their lives. The poison makes it to the heart in about 24 hours. They are then sent into the labyrinth of caves with two swords and a torch that will burn 10-hours and told to find a white egg in a nest of these slarn and eat it. That's the cure.
Valyn spends hours fumbling around in the dark, and it's really tense, before he lights his torch. He comes across nest after nest where the eggs are already destroyed. Eventually, he has to throw himself into an underground river when he's attacked by a dozen slarn and ends up deep in the earth on some beach where he's able to eventually get his torch going again. There's this enormous nest near him and he wanders over to it and finds a black egg. With no time remaining he basically slurps it down, and it does cure him, and then he flees like the biggest slarn ever and makes it to the surface. There near the top he finds his best friend murdered, and he emerges and scares the bejeesus out of everyone because his eyes have turned completely black. That's essentially where I am with Valyn's storyline...and I really can't wait to read more. Oh and the eggs give the Kettral powers. Valyn's egg (of course) bestows even more powers than a white egg would.
In Kaden's storyline, he's been in monk training for the last eight years (like Valyn) and can't seem to understand why the monks are trying to pursue emptiness. Like why is that even a thing? So...and because he isn't making much progress...he gets taken before the abbot who finally explains why they've been trying to get him to reach this hallowed state of emptiness. They explain that humans essentially come from these gods called clestrium (I know I'm mispelling this word). Something happened long ago that made these immortals start to bare mortal children who had emotions (the clestrium didn't have those kinds of emotions) and the immortals viewed these kids as abominations and tried to kill them. Well they didn't succeed and humans soon outbred the clestrium and a war started and the immortals lost and were driven through magical gates that they used to travel all over the planet instantaneously. The emperor is supposed to be the keeper of the gates. The monks are descendants of people who figured out that the gates actually lead to another plane ruled over by the blank god, who doesn't allow anyone to use his gates or trespass in his kingdom that manifests emotions. In other words, you have to be completely empty to use the gates. So basically, the monk training is all toward this goal of producing an Emperor that can command the power of the gates that these ancient beings left behind. It's really kind of cool.
Finally, Adare's storyline has the least content, but is still fascinating. In her part of the world, she's piecing together who might have murdered her father (or have motive to do so). One particular priest (who is probably a leach) out politics her in a Game of Thrones-inspired maneuver that definitely left me invested and wanting more of that storyline.
So anyway, if you are looking for characters with strong moral compasses, amazing storytelling, and prose that will sing off the page you should check Brian Staveley out. I'm so glad I found these books. It's just what I needed in my life.