Joint Review: Shadowblade by Anna Kashina

Publisher: Angry Robot
Publish Date: 21 May 2019
Reviewed by: E and Marlene
How we got this book: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

A young sword prodigy must impersonate a lost princess and throw her life into a deadly political game, in this kinetic epic fantasy novel by the author of the award-winning Majat Code series

Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…

*Blurb taken from Goodreads*

E: I keep a spreadsheet of upcoming books that I update from a variety of different sources. One of those sources happens to be websites of authors I enjoy. Marlene and I raved over Kashina’s previous trilogy, The Majat Code, so one day as I was checking websites I saw an upcoming title so I put it on my list. When we were notified Shadowblade, was available on Netgalley I was super excited. While several of the elements I have come to expect from Kashina were present, I think the overall world and plot were too big for one book.

Marlene: We both ADORED The Majat Code! As I recall, we couldn’t email each other fast enough when Shadowblade turned up on NetGalley. I think we’ve both been waiting for the author’s next book since we finished Assassin Queen three years ago.

I wish I could say that Shadowblade lived up to its predecessors. I expected it to so hard, and it just…didn’t. It was a decent read and I liked it well enough – and the opening was fantastic – but it went too fast. By that I mean the story hit its own high points but didn’t go into depth in the places it needed to. The plot had so much potential but it needed much more book (or more likely bookS) to fulfill that potential – and that’s not what we got.

E: Yes, there was so much complexity! And the intrigue – intrigue in the Blademaster ranks and their training academy, intrigue in the palace, intrigue across the kingdoms…and plans within plans. So many elements I wanted to explore and see more of, elements which helped shape Naia and the situation she was thrust into. I absolutely loved the different elements of the Blademaster training, not all of the trainers, and could see why their graduates were in high demand but there was still a thread of something rotten at its core. I also liked how money talks…even to supposed neutrals.

I had some issues with Dal Gassan, I thought someone who survived to lead the Daljeer Circle and who was working with long running plans would have been a bit more wary about who he trusted and how much freedom he gave to his co-conspirators.

Marlene: Naia’s Blademaster training was the first of the (many) places where there was so much left unsaid. When we pick her story back up after the literally bloody opening, Naia is nearly an adult and in SO MUCH trouble at the Blademaster Academy. Something – well, lots of somethings – are clearly wrong at the place, but because we haven’t seen the years of Naia’s training we don’t know why she’s in so much trouble that Dal Gassan needs to “rescue” her from behind the scenes. Not that Dal Gassan doesn’t pretty much ALWAYS operate from behind the scenes – as all would-be puppet masters do.

It would have been fascinating to have seen more than just the brief glimpses we get of the way that the Blademaster Academy trains its graduates and just how and where Naia’s training went so wildly wrong. Not that she can’t do the work, but that the internal politics of the place are either completely screwed, the trainers are completely screwy, or corrupt, or all of the above.

This was a place where readers needed to know more – and it just isn’t there.

But speaking of Dal Gassan, E is absolutely right. For a person at the head of a potentially traitorous conspiracy he was way too trusting of his subordinates. And of course it bites him in the ass. Which he totally deserved but Naia didn’t.

E: It was enjoyable to watch Naia shift from someone who lost off of her dreams to a disposable tool to someone who was ready to fulfil a particular role and make it her own. I liked how she had developed relationships with others who were not in a favored status at the Blademaster Academy and how they in turn supported her. I would have loved seeing this carry through the story instead of a vignette showing a strong element of Naia’s character.

While Naia was strong I also liked how she couldn’t do EVERYTHING. The ability to create strong central characters and give them realistic weaknesses is something I think Kashina does well. I liked how this world provided rules and reasons for some of the weaknesses forcing Naia to work for what she wants to achieve. On the other hand this same rule seemed to become rather complicated closer to the climax of the book as it became the reason behind something else. Something I think the senior Blademaster would rather not become public knowledge.

Marlene: I think there were LOTS of things that the senior Blademaster would rather not become public knowledge. It’s pretty clear from the beginning that there is something rotten in the Blademaster Academy – we just don’t get enough information or story to see exactly what it is.

You are, as always, exactly right about Naia. She is a terrific heroine, and had the potential to be every bit the equal of Kara in The Majat Code. One of the things that this author does well is to create strong, flawed, realistic, human heroines. While Naia is trained to literally kick ass and either take names or leave the bodies for someone else to identify, she also has realistic flaws and weaknesses to make her relatable as a heroine for those of us who are not so trained.

As things move towards the climax Naia’s weaknesses do catch up to her, as they should to provide the right amount of high tension for the epic conclusion – but I wasn’t “with” her as much as I wanted to be because so much of her character development felt like it was supposed to be “understood” rather than shown. Too much of Naia’s coming into her powers was shown as exactly what you called them, “vignettes” rather than fully fleshed out parts of her story and I felt that lack.

E: I felt frustrated by Karrim’s character development. He sprang onto the page almost completely formed, the perfect Jaihar Blademaster, younger than most but still an adult. He played an interesting role in both testing and inspiring Naia. While he did fight, he is in the top rank of all the Blademasters, his conflict was much more internal and relied on his connection with Naia. I bought into the conflict on a practical level but I never developed the emotional link to his struggle and eventual decision. This conflict did however, make me seriously wonder how much the Blademasters and their ilk interfered in the past with matters of ruling and succession and how much they planned to interfere in the future had everything gone as Dal Gassan planned. I am still wondering how they plan to increase their influence. And “who” defines what is “for the good” of the empire…?

Marlene: Ah yes, that whole “greater good” thing (I read a LOT of Harry Potter fanfic and that concept gets trashed fairly often). Or to drag in a different fannish metaphor, while the needs of the many may outweigh the needs of the few or of the one, who decides those parameters is really important and almost always benefits the one who is making the decisions – Spock’s sacrifice notwithstanding.

Karrim, Karrim, Karrim. He’s supposed to be the romantic hero. And that potential is there from the beginning. But you’re so right that he doesn’t grow during the course of the story. He arrives fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, and remains fully-formed throughout the story. Naia grows and changes a lot from the first time we meet her as a near-adult, but Karrim is already pretty much everything he’s going to be.

And the romance. We get a lot of longing looks and some romantic thoughts, but there just isn’t enough there, well, there to sell me on the romance. I felt like I was piecing together what it was supposed to be from very tiny hints and lots of previous reading in the genre, but it just wasn’t there in THIS book as published.

E: To go back to one of your early comments, I needed more BOOKS for this. I needed the slow-burn romantic tension and character growth on both sides. I needed to see more of why the Empire is how it is or how it got to Dal starting his conspiracy. I wanted to see more of the Blademasters, their Academy, how they recruited, and what fed their inner corruption. I hope Kashina returns to this world and is able to provide all of this because the promise, the hints, the start of something wonderful is all here, there just wasn’t room to flesh everything out.

I give Shadowblade a B-

Marlene: While it sometimes carries negative connotations, Shadowblade is one of those cases where the author should have committed at least duology if not trilogy. This is a big story that just doesn’t get the bigness it deserves. It reminds me a lot of Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep, which hits many of the same plot beats but is just the beginning of an epic series. Shadowblade deserved to be, too.

So much got left on the virtual cutting room floor in Shadowblade, as E described, the worldbuilding of the Empire, why Dal Gassan’s conspiracy was so necessary and so important, all of the many, many puppetmasters, whatever is rotten in the state of the Academy and the much needed fleshing out of the romance between Naia and Karrim.

I wanted to love Shadowblade, but in the end I was disappointed. There is so much awesome story potential, but we don’t see nearly enough of it.

I also give Shadowblade a B-

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