I’m slowly working my way through my Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry backlog from back when I had a subscription to every book they published. Anna Kashina’s name was familiar: turns out I read a similarly named Shadowblade that also features cool sexy sword-wielding ladies. I’m not saying these books are clones, but yeah … Kashina has a theme here.
In Blades of the Old Empire, an ancient enemy has returned and has an outsized interest on the Crown Prince, Kyth. Fortunately, Kyth is protected by a mercenary named Kara (when I got this book, of course, I had no idea I would one day come to share the name of one of its main characters, yay). Kara seems to be the only one immune to the magic that Kyth’s attackers use to disable everyone in their path. Oh, and Kyth and Kara have a thing for each other—because of course they do. Determined to find out more about these new (old) enemies, Kyth and Kara and their retinue set off on a little quest, only to be waylaid (of course). Meanwhile, Kyth’s daddy (that would be King Daddy to you and me) sets off on his own little quest, with some politics and shenanigans for him to enjoy. Also there is some death and a fair amount of scenery-chewing.
Don’t let my insouciance fool you: I liked most of this book well enough. Kashina has some interesting ideas in here, from the whole Majat’s gem ranking setup to the evil cult brotherhood to the various powers within this world—the Church, the Keepers, the crown, etc. It’s clever, very detailed, with lots of hints that the lore goes deeper. Exactly what I like in my fantasy.
As much as the romance between Kyth and Kara annoys me, I’ll also praise their characterization. Kyth isn’t a Marty Stu with a whole bunch of random powers that lets him get out of scrapes: Kashina develops his powers gradually and in a logical way from the beginning of the book to the end. Similarly, even though Kara is literally the most elite warrior in existence, she has her flaws too.
I’m less satisfied with the plotting. The parallel storytelling structure works well enough for me, but the actual plot leaves much to be desired. So much that happens is just very convenient, from the way that Mai conveniently knows how to disable instead of kill someone important to the way that Kyth and Mai meet up again with the others at just the right time. Similarly, while some of the characters are great (as noted above), others, like the Duke, seem like cardboard left in the rain too long.
Blades of the Old Empire has a lot going for it, and while I wouldn’t jump at recommending it, I’ll say this: I wanted a nice fantasy novel to read on my deck in the sun, and Kashina delivered on that.