Review: ARC of Shadowblade by Anna Kashina

NB- I received this book on Netgalley for free in exchange for an honest review. All below opinions are mine.

shadowblade.jpgNaia’s short hair threw me off a little in this, because her growing her hair out is a bit of a plot point in the novel. Other than that, though, the design is interesting and well done

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…

I wanted to love this book. The idea—the story of Anastasia reimagined as a disgraced student ninja and possible mythical princess. The reality is pretty different.

I never realised before how useful genre and tropes are in giving the reader an idea of what to expect. I couldn’t tell what genre this book was trying to be. It read as standard YA, but included reasonably detailed sex scenes, so I’m not entirely sure who the market for this book is.

Several ultimately relevant plot points were introduced early—which is good—but the high tension of the opening scene is only matched in the ultimate climax of the novel. It left me feel like I was waiting for things to get interesting again for the majority of the book. I also thought that Naia’s blade skills would be more important to the plot. This was not the case.

Naia as a main character was a bit of a problem for me. She was presented as a skilled warrior with a natural affinity for weapons, and that’s about all we ever learned about her. Her personality was weak, and despite her (almost overhyped) abilities, she had to get saved a bunch of times from situations that seemed included only to make her feel indebted. Ultimately—Naia was bland, which made her hard to relate to. It’s not that I didn’t like her, it’s that I didn’t feel like she was ever a fully developed character.

Naia also had a bad case of Main Character Disease. Everyone risked themselves for her, helped her, saved her or adored her for no reason, unless they were a Bad GuyTM, in which case they hated her or tried to manipulate her immediately, for just as little reason. This lack of depth to supporting character’s reactions to Naia only emphasised the blandness of her personality.

Jai Karrim as a character was interesting, but despite his fairly central role in the novel, the novel ended with the reader knowing very little about him that wasn’t mentioned the first time his name was. Dai Gassan likewise seemed like a missed opportunity. The villain had slightly more backstory and character motivation introduced, but only to retroactively justify their seemingly out-of-character actions. This made most of the major plot points seem overly-convenient and unsatisfying.

The conclusion included several villain monologues to explain what was going on, and quite a few moments of decades long plans being fooled by needless subtlety in some areas, when the villain had already exposed themselves.

The world Shadowblade is set in could also have been far better developed. Even the rankings among the Jaihar (Warrior Guild) weren’t properly explained, and the political situation that the plot should have been based on was only sketched in where absolutely necessary to allow the plot to happen. The time jumps in this book were also a bit jarring as there’s no chapter heading or section break (eg. Book I—Ninja School) to indicate years have passed, and every time it happened I got thrown off my stride a bit.

None of the relationships between characters in Shadowblade had much depth, with one exception—and both parties involved in that keep mentioning that they shouldn’t like the other person. Lust and surface-level similarities were seemingly the only thing tying them together for most of the book, a couple of near-death experiences happened and suddenly they were irrevocably in love. It rang false. The characters in this book just didn’t change, the plot all seemed connected by only the barest of threads, and even the world and political situation doesn’t get explored in enough depth to really sell the story. To be honest, I feel like the book could have began where this one ended and stand a far better choice of keeping my interest.

The premise was great, and right up until the first sex scene I thought this book was a fairly standard hero’s journey in the style of The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan, The Way of Shadows by Brent weeks or even The Poppy War by RF Kuang; the inclusion of a romance sub plot and the general haziness of the plot and muddied tension from that point on made Shadowblade a more unique story, but one that I found far less impactful—especially when it came to world-building and character development.

Ultimately, I think this book would be best suited for those who want a light read, with an interesting premise and setting. If you like fantasy and enjoy reading about elite warriors and fairytale retellings, you might like Anna Kashina’s Shadowblade—it’s scheduled for release on May 28th of this year.

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