Blades of the Old Empire: Book One of the Majat Code is not, contrary to my initial impression, Anna Kashina’s debut novel. Three of her previous novels were published by the small press/independent publisher Dragonwell Publishing; with two others published by different small outfits, and she has in addition published a further two novels in Russian. Angry Robot Books seems resolved to bring her promptly before a wider Anglophone audience, though, with a second volume in the Majat Code series already scheduled for July of the year.
Reading Blades of the Old Empire, I was put in mind of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords, a novel I finished out of a combination of ever-mounting disbelief, stubbornness, and a certain amount—I confess it—of anger. If you enjoyed that book, you might possibly enjoy this one.
But you also might not.
So let’s talk a little bit about what Blades of the Old Empire does wrong. (I have tried with diligence to uncover examples of what it may do right, but alas, my discernment proved unequal to the task.) Let’s start with the extremely misleading cover copy, which gave me the impression that this book would be relevant to my interests.
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?
Cover copy’s job is to sell books. Or at least to get people to pick them up. You expect it to be a little misleading. But this particular blurb leaves you with the impression that Kara is Blades’ main character—or at least a main character. But of the... seven? eight? more? ...characters given point of view in these 350 pages (I may have lost track towards the end), Kara is the one whose point of view we see least.
Which is not to say she’s not present a lot of the time. No: we see a lot of Kara—and when Prince Kyth is not mooning over how she’s the “woman of his dreams” (a direct quote from page one), she’s being perved on. Repeatedly, by the world’s least effectual, least threatening, most ridiculous villain (whose associates are very unsarcastically complimentary about his intelligence: “Your plan is brilliant indeed, Kaddim Nimos,” the other man said. “And it’s working well.”) and by random ship-captains.
He stopped in front of Kara, the lusty gleam in his eyes making Kyth’s guts wrench in revolt.
“It brings joy to my heart, Aghat Kara,” Nimos said, “to finally see your weapon out in the open. You only bring it out to fight, don’t you? Are you going to fight me? It would be… oh, so sensual. It makes me excited just to think about it.”
“Should I count to three?” Kara asked. “I don’t normally say this, but my sword hand is getting restless.”
Nimos licked his lips again with slow deliberation. “Oh, you’re such a tease, naughty girl. I know that you have two swords. Hence, two sword hands. You wouldn’t be a Diamond if you couldn’t use both hands equally well, and ooh, the mere thought of it excites me. I love a woman with a grip. I can show you so many things you could do with your, as you call it, sword hands, rather than hold weapons. Something your boy here can’t possibly dream of. You have but to say the word.”
“Oh, please, don’t change the subject. We were just getting started, weren’t we? By the way, you look so pretty when you’re angry!”
It saddens my heart—I am deeply grieved—to report that this is not deliberate parody. But I should give you more of the flavour of the thing. Another encounter, this time in an inn:
Nimos came up to their table and stopped beside an empty chair.
“Long time, no see!” he exclaimed. “Fancy running into all of you here. Mind if I sit down for a moment?”
“Yes,” Kara said distinctly. “I mind.”
Let us not pass over Captain Beater’s reaction to Kara:
“We’re traveling together, yes,” Kara said. “And I’m not ‘your pretty’.”
He measured her with a slow, sticky glance that stopped just short of reaching her face. “Not yet. But if we’re to spend all this time together on the boat, there’s no reason to get lonely, eh?“
“I won’t be lonely, thanks.”
Captain Beater winked. “Neither will I, I hope. ’specially with you on board”
Captain Beater smacked his lips, holding her gaze. “You drive a hard bargain, girl. How about somethin’ extra? Such as you, warming up my bed on a cold night, eh?”
Our Heroes are deeply puzzled at the behaviour of their antagonist—“This man, Nimos, really is strange,” Alder said. “His behaviour doesn’t make any sense.” - but not to the extent of troubling their minds very greatly to come up with reasons or precautions. (They are quite possibly the most clueless band of clueless adventurers ever to go a-roving: after a while, it stops being funny, because it’s not intentional.)
Oh, and dialogue is not one of this book’s gifts. There’s clunky dialogue. And then there’s what you get below clunky, down where the gears of communication screech and grind and thud despairingly against the locked-up mechanism of speech-in-prose, leaving oily smears against the walls of their prison. This novel adopts the latter approach.
I was expecting a book with a lot of angst, violence, and possibly star-crossed lovers. A natural assumption from the cover copy, right? But I was doomed to intense disappointment. This is not that book. This is not a book that can be bothered with much in the way of worldbuilding, or characterisation, or logic, either. It is a book that appears to assume we already know who all of these people are and why we should care. Prince Kyth has some sort of power. His father has some sort of problem connected to installing Kyth as his heir. There is some sort of Church, and also some sort of Dark Magic conspiracy that wants Kyth, for some reason, never entirely made clear. (There is also some Ancient Magic Personage who wears MURDEROUS MAN-EATING SPIDERS for a dress. That... almost had potential to go somewhere interesting.)
When it came to reasonably competent writing, once again, I was disappointed. Passing lightly over the author’s understanding of physics, medicine, and geology, let us note a peculiar approach to fight scenes, wherein warriors (the Majat appear to do a solid line in blond people with PERFECT HAIR) can catch arrows in their hands or deflect entire flights of them with their swords, and can defeat dozens upon dozens of lesser warriors without inflicting serious wounds or death; and leaving aside the peculiar approach to political exchanges and diplomacy (King to duke: This is mutiny! Duke to king: This is my castle and you’re not leaving til I say you can, nyah nyah!)—leaving those minor issues both aside, a remarkable amount of this book consists of people going to sleep, waking up, setting out, travelling (and taking a “potent herb” called “goat mint” to improve their stamina—one is ineluctably reminded of Horny Goat Weed), going to sleep, waking up, and talking about all the things they don’t understand and that other people aren’t telling them.
I didn’t become angry, though, until Blades decided to add an extra spot of WRONG to its sad stew of its other failings.
“Whatever your quarrel is with this man [Nimos],” Oden Lan persuaded, “you must not let it get in the way of your duty. I saw the way he looked at you, but I’m quite certain he understands what kind of services he has paid for and won’t give you any trouble of that kind. More than that, even if he did try to force himself on you, alone or with all twelve of his accomplices, with your skills in combat you can’t possibly be afraid of it. Are you, Aghat [Kara]?”
So, we’re framing constant perving as a both-sides-at-fault ”quarrel,“ we’re saying that a woman should go to work for a man she has good reason not to trust around her (even Super!Warriors have to sleep, after all), and it implies that a warrior—whose skills surely include assessing danger!— shouldn’t trust her own assessment of the risk of sexual assault. And, moreover, it implies an impossible standard for female warriors. If they’re ever raped, ever assaulted—why, then! They were never that good a warrior at all!
And it’s later implied that Oden Lan has had a thing for Kara ever since she was ten. Which adds an extra layer of UGH.
Blades of the Old Empire is, in conclusion, a fairly boring read. On technical grounds of prose composition, the best that can be said is that it’s not very competent. But worse than boring, and bad, when it comes to how it treats its female characters, it’s seriously depressing. With more competently written novels, you can at least argue that the author knew the choices they were making: you can make the argument, one way or the other, that they had a clue. That they were portraying certain attitudes for effect.
Here, there ain’t much effect to be found—except maybe UGH. And that makes it pretty much the anti-fun.
If you’re looking for a book featuring heroic mercenaries, you should maybe try Violette Malan instead.
Blades of the Old Empire is available February 25th from Angry Robot.