Blades of the Old Empire, by Anna Kashina

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Publication date – February 25, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Kara is a mercenary – a Diamond warrior, the best of the best, and a member of the notorious Majat Guild. When her tenure as protector to Prince Kythar comes to an end, custom dictates he accompany her back to her Guild to negotiate her continued protection.

But when they arrive they discover that the Prince’s sworn enemy, the Kaddim, have already paid the Guild to engage her services – to capture and hand over Kythar, himself.

A warrior brought up to respect both duty and honour, what happens when her sworn duty proves dishonourable?

Thoughts: Anna Kashina’s tale of a kingdom in peril, a dark infiltration of the church, and a quest to change laws and protect the innocent and uncover the newly risen dark cult’s plans should have been a book to leave a deep impression on me. It sounds, on the surface, like a tale filled with potential to be action-packed, intriguing, riddled with controversy and grey morality.

Instead it was a book with a story that didn’t seem to delve much deeper than the surface. The enemies of the dark cult were all power-mad and very much aware that they were doing evil things in the name of evil. Characters fell flat and didn’t have too much to them, and the most interesting things about them seemed glossed over in such a way that I felt very much as though this was the second book of a series, not the first. The dual romance subplots felt half-hearted at best, and there was more than a bit of info-dumping in the form of, “As you know, [character]” exposition.

(Some research tells me that the story for this technically began in another series, published by a different publisher, and not mentioned in any way when the pitch for this book was given to me. This may explain why many of the characters felt so flat and underdeveloped. They were developed in a previous novel, and so in a way I really was coming into the middle of a story, with no warning and no preamble.)

The book wasn’t entirely bad. It’s just that its good moments weren’t as common as its merely okay moments, and even then those good moments seemed to have caveats to them. Hints are made about the history of the world, the politics around the monarchy, it’s said blatantly that the church hates magic but it’s unclear as to why, and the Majat themselves are a fairly interesting warrior society, their ranks coded by gems and semi-precious stones. Like I said, this book, and many of the plot elements used, held what I thought was a lot of potential. But I don’t feel it lived up to that potential, and that was disappointing.

There was also a lot of deus ex machina going around. Each Diamond-ranked Majat has a secret “shadow” who knows all their fighting weaknesses and are used against them if they ever betray the guild, and conveniently there are 2 Diamond Majat in the story, one of whom is the other’s shadow (neither of them knew it before that moment). The world’s most deadly poison is conveniently also something that can save a person from deadly infection if used in small doses, and of course a character was carrying a vial. There’s a miraculous healing potion that can heal even the most deadly wounds, and a character was given some by a person who is later revealed to think that this character shouldn’t have anything to do with the Keepers or their knowledge, including that potion. A character has a fear of heights so profound she says she even hates standing on stools to get dishes from high shelves, and so is terrified to cross a chasm until the man she’s crushing on helps her across, but this character has shown no fear at riding a horse for over a day, an animal that keeps her much higher off the ground than a kitchen stool. Convenient phobia that never appears again, exploited for a bit of romantic tension.

I don’t think this is a series I will continue with, which is a rare exception to the rule for an Angry Robot book. The background of the kingdom was interesting (what little was revealed, anyway), the Majat Guild were interesting, and the few hints about the Cha’ori culture were interesting (I have a weakness for reading about nomadic cultures), but there were too many issues with this book to override what interest it did bring out in me. This may be a case of “Your Mileage May Vary,” though, since people who have read Kashina’s other books with these characters may have a better time with it. They likely won’t feel so lost, will understand the background a lot better, and it’s entirely possible that many of my issues with lack of explanation and expansion would be nullified because they were explained elsewhere.

However, when presenting this book as the first of a series with no info that it’s technically a continuation of another series, readers may very well find themselves floundering from the get-go, having no foundation, or even an idea that one exists. I’ll be generous and says that this was just a very poor introduction to the world that Kashina has created. The world itself seems intriguing and full of potential for epic adventures, plots and politics and great battles, and all of that may be better appreciated by having read the author’s previous novels, but all of that gets lost in over-the-top battles you know the good guys will win, convenient plot devices, and only average writing that felt like it could have used a bit more polish before being revealed. Even the potential of the world isn’t enough to draw me back after such an awkward and unsteady introduction.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Guest post by Anna Kashina

Anna Kashina, author of the recently-released Blades of the Old Empire, kindly agreed to drop by a write a guest post for Bibliotropic. After reading her latest novel, I was particularly interested in the culture of the Cha’ori, and she was good enough to shed a bit more light on their culture.

Thank you for hosting me on your blog, and for coming up with such a rewarding topic!

As it happens, I did develop the Cha’ori culture quite a bit, even though only glimpses of it are shown in the book. It is a pleasure to talk about it.

bladesoftheoldempireThe Cha’ori are a nomadic culture somewhat similar to Mongols but not militant. They live in horts, groups of about 200 people (sometimes bigger or smaller), and they travel on horseback in the area called Grasslands, a large grass plain that lies between the kingdom of Tallan Dar and the Eastern Mountain Range. They usually set camps for short periods of time until they deplete the nearby pastures and then move on.

The Cha’ori depend on the strength of their warriors and the skill of their herders, but they are intrinsically a matriarchal culture. Each hort is informally ruled by a woman elder who has a rare gift of foretelling–seeing the possible futures and predicting the most probable one. In other words, prophecy, even though the Cha’ori don’t really like to use this word. This woman, the Foreteller of the hort, relies on a Warrior Elder, the senior male who has authority of the rest of the hort and is directly under her command. Often this man is her husband, or consort, but this is not required.

Each hort has an “identifier”, a sign carried on their banners and the tops of their helmets. By these signs other Cha’ori can see which hort the people they encounter belong to. Most horts are friendly with each other, but some are not.

This identifier usually highlights something to do with the Foreteller. The most powerful Foreteller, Dagmara, carries a symbol of an eye, which is also the identifier of her hort, the Overseer hort. She is rumored to be hundreds of years old, made immortal through her friendship with the mysterious Forest Mother. Her hort informally rules the Grasslands. No one will ever go against the Overseer hort, and other Foretellers and Warrior Elders sometime come to seek Dagmara’s advice.

plainshorseThe Cha’ori have their own language. The word “Cha” means Wanderer, “Ori” means Grass, so their literal name is “wanderers over the grass”. The Grasslands they live in are called “Or’hallas” in their language (from “ori”–grass and “halla”–land). They have distant cousins, Cha’idi (“wanderers over the sand”), who live in the deserts just north of Shayil Yara.

The Cha’ori depend on their horses for survival, and each of their horses is considered a full member of the hort. Their lives are just as precious as those of people, and each time a horse dies it receives a burial equal to a human. The Cha’ori burn their dead and send the ashes into the wind.

Anna Kashina grew up in Russia and moved to the United States in 1994 after receiving her Ph.D. in cell biology from the Russian Academy of Sciences. She works as a biomedical researcher and combines career in science with her passion for writing. Anna’s interests in ballroom dancing, world mythologies and folklore feed her high-level interest in martial arts of the Majat warriors. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her latest novel, Blades of the Old Empire, was published on February 25, 2014, via Angry Robot Books.