Anna Kashina’s 2019 second-world fantasy novel Shadowblade is pleasant entertainment: a mix of swordplay, political double-crossing, lost heirs and imposters all sweetened with a dollop of romance. It’s not my usual thing, but it was the right book for a drowsy, hot late-summer day with a big, sweating glass of iced tea close by.
Dal Gassan is present for the betrayal and slaughter of the Queen of Challmar and her entire court, ambushed by the Emperor Shabaddin just as she is signing a peace treaty with him. A newborn baby girl survives the mass killing, spirited off by one of the Queen’s loyal women. Because he is a member of the Daljeer Circle, Gassan is spared by the Emperor’s assassins, but Gassan begins to hatch a plan to be rid of rule of the Emperor.
Seventeen years later, Gassan visits the training grounds of the Jaihar Blademasters, elite fighters who protect the Emperor and also provide justice throughout the Empire. No one has been happy under the Emperor’s reign, but no one dared rebel openly. Gassan talks to the young trainee Naia and observes her fighting. Naia is a gifted fighter who nevertheless is about to be expelled from the Jaihar for insubordination.
Gassan decides that Naia is the perfect person to complete his long-running plans for regime change. Emperor Shabaddin is dying of a disease; his heir is his son, who will be even worse for people than Shabaddin was. Gassan has mapped out an elaborate scheme to offer up a possible alternate candidate for the throne. Naia is a perfect fit for the part of the quasi-mystical Princess Xarimet of Challmar.
First, Gassan must convince the Jaihar headmaster, Arsat. Before Arsat will agree, he assigns the brilliant, womanizing Jaihar warrior Karrim to investigate the charge that Naia assaulted a senior trainer. Karrim begins the way all good investigators do — he engages Naia in a sparring match. Naia is rebellious and distrustful, but the truth comes out and she is exonerated of the insubordination charge. This leaves two Jaihar trainers wanting revenge, but this loose end is never truly tied up.
Naia must not only trust Karrim, she must excel at all forms of fighting, win over the headmaster, and learn Chall etiquette and history from Mehtab, a mysterious Chall woman Gassan has appointed to be her mentor.
Of course, young Naia is distracted from her studies by the strange tingling warmth she feels around Karrin, the way she thinks about him all the time, and so on. And Karrim is also pulled away from his duties by thoughts of Naia. For about the first half of Shadowblade, their relationship, which is instant attraction if not instant love, takes background to the political intrigue. Naia, an orphan, has the right hair and eye color to truly be a Chall, so her impersonation of a lost Chall princess is not so far-fetched. Furthermore, she has a strange affinity for iron, something unique to the Chall. Mehtab presents a different experience of the Chall themselves and their magic, and her stories and her passion begin winning Naia over.
In the second half of the story the impersonation truly begins. Things get really busy and a little confusing as soon as Naia shows up at the imperial palace. Now there are schemes within schemes within the schemes. The plot relies heavily on Del Gassan’s ignorance and Naia’s susceptibility to manipulation.
My big complaint with Shadowblade is just that; people talk about Naia as a natural leader and the obvious choice for Empress, but she is constantly tricked and manipulated throughout, and never actually makes a decision on her own. Gassan spends too much time saying, “I should have known that!” as secrets become revealed… and he’s right, he should have.
What I liked was the idea of the mystical affinity for iron, and the magical stone called imlar. These were very cool concepts, explaining the power of the Chall and, maybe, the eagerness of the Emperor to wipe out the royal bloodline in the first place.
Karrim and Naia have an intense emotion and mystical bond when they are sparring with weapons (as opposed to sparring with words, or glances), and I really liked that too. Their relationship is delightfully steamy. I don’t seek out romance novels, but I liked the romance here and I thought it nicely balanced the swordplay scenes and the political scenes. There is a bit of mirroring when we’re told that the Chall Queen took the captain of the royal guards, called Redcloaks, as her lover, foreshadowing one possible relationship between Naia and Karrim.
As I said, Shadowblade is a perfect book for a lazy weekend or a series of afternoons kicking back on the porch.