Blade's Edge by Virginia McClain is a deeply immersive secondary world fantasy that tells the story of two young girls growing up with magic in a world where magic is forbidden to them. The pathos of these characters is communicated so well by McClain, and you feel for them deeply as the story unfolds. The world is inspired by feudal Japan while still maintaining its secondary world status.
The world building and magic are exceptional in this one. The magic is explained well without being over-explained, leaving tantalizing mysteries about the way it works. The complexity the magic system offers allows it to play an important role in both the story and the development of the characters without ever becoming confusing. I always love when fantasy stories are able to make magic an important aspect of the world, and that's certainly the case in Blade's Edge. The Japanese-inspired world building is exquisite and creates a wonderful ambiance for the story, right down to the haikus that open each part of the story. The world building is so detailed that it almost feels like historical fantasy, but it isn't. The two main characters are engaging and serve - to some extent - as foils for one another. Separated as children, the two spend their early adolescent years growing up on their own, apart from one another. But their individual arcs mirror one another in fascinating ways. Partly this is because magic is forbidden to women in their world, and that forces them both to hide their magic. But there are other elements of the story that are similar in each of their arcs and the similarities and dissimilarities create a sort of harmony and counterpoint. Part of what unites the two stories is the driving need of each to overthrow the system of oppression in which they find themselves. Overthrowing oppression always appeals to me in stories, and that's certainly the case here.
Not every element of the novel worked for me. The largest frustration I had was in the large time jumps that sometimes occur. This happens not only when one begins a new part of the story, but sometimes between chapters within a particular part. Flip a page and weeks, months, or years have passed and you have to play a little catch-up, figuring out what has transpired in the interim. This is especially frustrating when a chapter ends and you expect an important event to happen next. The event happens, but off-screen, and we learn about it only in retrospect, as a character remembers the event. I'm never a fan of this sort of literary device. It only created frustration for me here and took me out of the story. Too often I felt like I was missing the climactic part of a scene or arc. This is particularly noticeable in the first third of the book. After that, it settles down and either through exposure or because it genuinely happens less the story feels to flow more naturally.
Blade's Edge is a coming-of-age story set in a world where women have few rights and certainly can't do magic. The two viewpoint characters work well, especially as their stories mirror one another in engaging and sometimes surprising ways. This will appeal especially to fans of Japanese-inspired fantasy, Samurai stories, and coming-of-age tales.
Review by Calvin Park
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