Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina

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Rating 3.5/10
I spent more than three quarters of this book cringing and making weird faces.

Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina is the first book of The Majat Code, and likely to be the last book I read in this series. Urgh... what a frustrating book. The overall plot had some pretty interesting things going on with a couple of conspiracies and guild politics, a couple of the action scenes were quite good, and the writing was pretty simple and fluent. And that about covers all the positive things I want to say about this book.

The story follows a bunch of people who are either travelling on the road to somewhere important, or fighting against one of the most stereotypical moustache-twirling villains I've seen in recent memory and his troupe of magic wielding warriors. Our pack of heroes include a prince who is the chosen one, a king who is betrayed, a young girl who has just discovered a secret magic inside her, and handful of the deadliest mercenaries to have ever lived in this world. Sounds familiar, right?

Plot holes and inconsistent plot devices / contrivances are found all over this book. The inconsistent plot device that got to me most was that apparently Kara is not just the best of the best diamond ranked Majat warriors, but she is also one of the super special super secret anonymous Majat warriors who all must shroud their face at all times so other Majat warriors don't know their identity... for some dumb reason. I say it’s dumb because they only ever wear the shrouds in the castle, but outside of the castle they are open faced working with other Majat warriors who are clearly able to identify her. There was only one reason for the shroud, a single scene where our heroes escape from the Majat castle using the super special super secret shrouds to hide their identities. Frustrating stuff, and only a small example of the stuff you have to put up with in this book.

Next is the characterization, of which we get hardly any. With the exception of Mai, all these characters are pretty much interchangeable. Their personalities are exactly the same, their wants and hopes and dreams are exactly the same. There is just nothing to distinguish these people except for their names, the clothes they wear, and the weapons they carry. I read an interview with the author that says she builds her characters through the budding romances which, whether you agree with it or not, is immaterial when the romance is so poorly executed.

The romance. It consisted entirely of viewpoint characters leering creepily at the object of their affection, hoping that they will eventually get noticed so they can go bone in the woods. These characters don't ever get to know one another, they barely talk to each other, they couldn't tell you anything about the objects of their affection except that they look pretty. The "romances" in this book are painfully shallow, never exploring anything beyond physical attraction. Maybe I'm being unfair given that I just read The Fault In Our Stars which presents such an amazing romance between two cancer ridden teenagers, but I don't think I'm being unfair. If you are using romance to build your characters, then you have to actually make me believe that these people want to be around each other because they enjoy each others company, not because the only connection they might have is sexual attraction.

The sexual stuff is not just limited to the romances, it seems like every single male character cannot see a female character as anything but a sexual object. I like a good book that explores the power, pleasure, and nuances of sex, just like in No Return by Zachary Jernigan, but there is no exploration here beyond superficial stereotypes. Perhaps the author is making a point here, but when you paint every single male character with the same brush, it's hard to take that point seriously. Every man wants to be with Kara, from the chosen-one prince to the moustache-twirling super villain to even the old old guild master who raised Kara since she was a child and knew that his love for her was not of the father / daughter kind even when she was 10 years old. Sex is on the brain of every character, but it only has one speed, and there is no variation.

The last thing I want to talk about is the marketing, which I think misrepresents this book. The cover shows a badass female assassin who is armed to the teeth and looks angry. The blurb lets us know that this is Kara's story. It has cover quotes like this - "Kashina's Arabesque novel ... will have readers dream of summoning their own djinn." This package is awesome and had me champing at the bit to get a hold of this book, but it presents a far different story that what you end up getting. The story is in no way Arabesque (the quote is from a review of a previous series she wrote), this is a very Anglo-medieval story with some hints of Asian influences, and Kara is far from being the protagonist in this story. She gets plenty of screen time, but this is the story about a young prince, the chosen-one, who holds the fate of the world in his hands, if only he could learn how to use his powers. I expect the marketing of books to say a bunch of things we want to hear in order to get us excited, but I don't expect the actual product to be so distant from what was advertised.

As I said at the start, this was a frustrating book to read. I genuinely enjoyed a handful of the action scenes, and I had no problem breezing through this book at a very fast pace. But I spent more than three quarters of this book cringing and making weird faces, reading out silly passages to my wife, and posting stupid pages to my friends on Facebook. I should have stopped reading this book at the 20% mark, but c'mon, you know how hard it is to look away from a train wreck.

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