So you want to stage a soft-coup and manipulate the succession, but you have one problem: you need some kind of plausible heir. Fortunately for you, about 17 years ago you encountered a baby at the same time there was a royal massacre, and well, you know, one thing led to another, and you ended up stashing her with some super skilled warrior so she would grow up all big and strong. Also, you read this play called Anastasia you found lying around near that weird door that leads to another dimension, and it gave you some ideas….
This is basically the plot of Shadowblade (minus the multi-dimensional shenanigans, sorry to say). Anna Kashina tells the story of a young woman, Naia, manipulated by old, ambitious men (and one old, perhaps even more ambitious woman) to take over the empire—albeit temporarily. Along the way, she has to learn to be more confident in herself. Because as the overarching plan goes awry, Naia finds it necessary to step in and fill the gaps with her own ideas. That doesn’t make anyone happy! And there are fight scenes. And sex too. Thanks to Angry Robot and NetGalley for the eARC.
I’m going to jump right into the things I disliked about this book.
There’s way too much telling versus showing happening here. We’re told that the emperor is a bad dude and that his heir is also a bad dude—but we never actually meet the emperor. Conversely, we’re supposed to take Dal Gassan at his word that he has the empire’s best interests at heart—but aside from knowing that he’s a healer, we only really ever see him interacting with Naia, with some of the Jaihar, etc.
Kashina has created, frankly, an intriguing world here. I like how she weaves together the disparate cultural elements of Challimar, the Jaihar, the Daljeer, etc. It’s creative and fun and interesting, and I want to know more. Yet for all of these ideas, Shadowblade’s narrative scope is frustratingly shallow. The pacing and plot are almost so spare that we seldom get to see the characters do anything other than move the story forward by conversing about politics or having some cool battles. Perhaps the closest we get are some nice scenes between Naia and Karim near the beginning of the book where they spar and then go for dinner and he basically gives her a pep talk while he tries to figure out if she’s worth keeping in the order. For the most part, however, we move forward because a select few people tell us we need to move forward with this secret plot, without ever really giving us much reason to trust them other than the fact the book is following their point of view….
Content notice for somewhat graphic sex scenes as well. The romantic subplot here is predictable; however, Kashina at least makes its development gradual enough to feel more believable. Romance (and especially) sex don’t do much for me personally in these books, though, so I skimmed those parts. Just a heads-up if you’re not a fan of that stuff. I do like, however, that the older character at least attempts to consider the power imbalance created by their age and position (although the power imbalance created by position actually changes by the end of the book, interestingly enough).
Even with regards to that relationship, though, Kashina might have explored more deeply. That’s my overall critique of Shadowblade: it has so many opportunities to get deeper and even more interesting, but it never manages to take the plunge.
So why read this book? Well, Kashina knows how to write combat. She focuses both on what the characters do as well as what they’re feeling. Even though there’s a little bit of magic involved with “iron-sensing,” the characters with this ability also train tirelessly to become skilled fighters regardless of their innate senses. Kashina and her characters also have a keen sense of how storytelling is important to national identity and pride and to any good con. The plot, while predictable, is executed in an enjoyable way.
In other words, Shadowblade was a fine diversion for a holiday Monday afternoon. Alas, I was in the mood for fantasy that would ignite my senses and make me crave more, more, more … and it doesn’t quite go that far.