Blades Of The Old Empire by Anna Kashina (book review).
Previously, I have enjoyed Anna Kashina’s books. The world-building is my favourite aspect. With a few carefully chosen words, Kashina has transported me to worlds scarcely explored by modern fantasy writers. Her stories, drawn from Russian folklore and reminiscent of ‘The Arabian Nights’, are a welcome change from the usual sword and sorcery. While waiting for the next tale of the princess and the djin, I looked forward to delving into another of her worlds with ‘Blades Of The Old Empire’.
‘Blades Of The Old Empire’ begins a new series called the ‘Majat Code’. The Majat are an elite guild of mercenaries. When Diamond Majat Kara’s term as Prince Kythar’s protector ends, Kyth journeys back to the guild with her to engage Kara’s services again. Once there, they discover her contract has already been bought by his enemy.
From the official blurb: ‘A warrior brought up to respect both duty and honour, what happens when her sworn duty proves dishonourable?’
Well, Kara is a mercenary whose services go to the highest bidder, so one would hope she’d do her job. But, she cares for Kyth and he loves her, so…
I like a good love story. I enjoy romance with my Science Fiction and fantasy. I love ‘happy ever afters’, but this is one of those doomed to fail situations I find incredibly frustrating. Also, when I picked up this book, I did not expect to be reading a romance novel. Again, I like romance! But, based on the official blurb and cover, I expected something else here.
What I got was thin and inconsistent characterisation and a multitude of actions that made no sense. A king travels in disguise as a groomsman, yet expects his subjects to recognise him at a gate. Instead, they shower the party with arrows, which are expertly deflected by whirling quarterstaffs. Actually, that part was pretty cool. Many of the main characters’ actions are difficult to reconcile. This might be fantasy, but I’m too old to believe that love or indeed even lust conquers all, particularly where elite warriors are concerned.
I found the world-building lacking, which is a shame as from the first page I had hoped to be drawn into another of Kashina’s worlds. Being able to picture the surroundings always makes a novel read well. Here, I failed to pull together the elements. The Majat read like ninja-type warriors, but they are all pale and beautiful. Mixing cultures is good when building your own world, but not when one facet overshadows the rest. I’d rather read something familiar than try to picture medieval princesses being guarded by beautiful, young ninjas. It’s possible that my own imagination is at fault here. I watch a lot of martial arts films and so my mental imaginary might have been biased.
The only characters I really connected with were secondary, Mai and Ellah. Mai is another of the Majat warriors of Diamond rank like Kara. Ellah is Prince Kyth’s friend and also gifted with magic. Yes, everyone is special. Unfortunately, my infatuation with the extraordinarily pretty Mai was tested by the fact he was too young. At the tender age of twenty-four, he had not only already attained the highest rank in his guild, but had held it for four years! He’d captained the king’s guard at age twenty.
Ellah’s struggle with her truth-seeing gift was engaging, but also frustrating. Her progress was continually held back as other characters chose when to believe her, based on what was needed to drive the plot forward. Need some action? Let’s not believe Ellah. Need some intrigue? What she sees adds some here.
Finally, I had the constant feeling that I had missed a book. In fact, twice I checked to see if I really was reading the first volume in the series. I’m used to being thrown into the action and I often read sequels before the first book. I don’t mind catching up. But here I had too many questions. A search of Goodreads revealed a book called ‘The First Sword’ and a study of the synopsis showed Kashina has written these characters before. So, she is familiar with them, and it shows. I felt she could have spent more time fleshing out the characters in ‘Blades Of The Old Empire’ so that we could have truly got to know them as well. A meaningful connection with just one of them would have made reading this book a more empathic and engaging experience.
Did I like anything about the book? I did! Despite earlier comments, I liked the combat. The mix of Eastern martial styles captured my imagination. I found the balance of power interesting and the purpose of the Keepers. The magic seemed a little convenient at times, but it had a lot of unique aspects. Ellah’s ruth-seeing gift, had some interesting limitations. It seemed dependent upon her emotions and, at times, the mood of those she tried to read.
I didn’t find enough to like that I will look for a second book in this series, however. The cover and blurb are misleading. I picked up this book expecting to read Kara’s story and I did, but it’s diluted by the point of view of others. The book felt more like Kyth’s story and, to a lesser degree, Ellah’s, and I didn’t connect with them well enough to want to read on. I haven’t given up on Anna Kashina. I have enjoyed her other books and will continue to look for a sequel to ‘The Goddess Of Dance’ or any other tales connected with the princess and the djin. That was a world populated with characters I really connected with and I care about what they do next. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for this new batch.
(pub: Angry Robot. 496 page paperback. Price: $ 7.19 (US), £ 4.77 (UK). ISBN: 978-085766-412-9)
check out websites: http://angryrobotbooks.com/ and http://annakashinablog.wordpress.com/