I frequently pick up novels by authors I’ve never heard of. I pride myself on seeking out new voices and debut novels, or just authors I wasn’t familiar with yet. Sometimes this leads to some wonderful discoveries, and sometimes… Well, sometimes it doesn’t.
Here are some notes on a couple of books I ended up putting on the did-not-finish shelf: Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina (Angry Robot, Feb. 25th) and Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler (Tor, February 2nd.)
These are not meant to be proper reviews, mainly because I didn’t read the entire novel in both cases, and partly because I’m just not trying to write with the same depth and detail I expect from a good review. What follows are just some notes and thoughts about these two novels and why they didn’t work for me.
Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina
Kara is a highly trained mercenary in the Majat guild who, despite her young age, has risen to the highest “Diamond” level. She’s been assigned to protect Prince Kythar, the royal son who is the cause of some controversy because he has a magical gift that the land’s prevalent religion frowns upon. As these things often go, Kyth develops feelings for Kara. Meanwhile, Kyth’s friend Ellah discovers a gift of her own (truth-seeing) and turns out to have feelings for another Majat mercenary, who is assigned to protect the King.
Everything gets complicated when a representative of the Church arrives at court to demand that Kythar either submits to an exorcism to rid him of his “curse”, or failing that, is executed as the abomination that he is. King Evan responds by setting out to change the law that caused the problem in the first place, but this requires a full quorum of the country’s High Council, which includes some nobles who have been aligned against the king.
Even worse, when Kara returns to her Guild after her assignment protecting the prince is over, it turns out that, as her next task, the opposition has hired her to, yes, capture the prince. She faces a choice: stay true to the tenets of her Guild, or listen to her heart…
I picked up Blades of the Old Empire (billed as Book 1 of The Majat Code) because it looked interesting in a light, entertaining, popcorn fantasy sort of way. I was in the mood for a secondary world fantasy with lots of magic and action and so on—a brain candy read to relax with between more challenging assignments.
Well, I did get what I expected, I guess, but the quality wasn’t such that I wanted to read the whole thing. The book is plotted so breezily that it occasionally feels like a Young Adult novel. The author’s hand is occasionally a bit heavy: characters make decisions and move around more for the benefit of preparing certain set pieces than out of genuine motivation. Some coincidences are a bit too unlikely. It all feels a bit too, well, obvious.
Anna Kashina’s prose is, for the most part, perfectly suited for this type of novel: relatively straightforward, transparent, easy-reading. Occasionally a clunky sentence jumps out (“The kiss echoed through his body like silent thunder” was a memorable one) but for the most part, this is competent if unexceptional storytelling.
The main reason why I ended up giving up on this novel at more or less exactly the 50% mark is that I just didn’t have any desire to read more. There’s nothing really wrong with Blades of the Old Empire— but there’s also nothing there to keep me reading. I kept waiting for something surprising, something original, but the plot and characters just meandered along in perfectly acceptable but unexceptional fantasy story patterns.
Since I realized it’s unlikely I’d ever pick up the second book in The Majat Code series, I decided to cut my losses with Blades of the Old Empire at the 50% mark. It’s not BAD per se— just really not good enough to keep me interested. Then again, if you’re in the mood for a light action adventure fantasy with romance elements and don’t mind writing quality that’s comparable to a decent media tie-in novel, Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina might be worth checking out.
Final verdict: not bad, but unexceptional.
This next book, on the other hand, I really can’t recommend to anyone. This saddens me, because I picked this one up based on the kind of crazy alt-history synopsis that usually gets me all excited. Behold:
Lord Scott Oken, a prince of Albion, and Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke live in a world where the sun never set on the Egyptian Empire. In the year 1877 of Our Lord Julius Caesar, Pharaoh Djoser-George governs a sprawling realm that spans Europe, Africa, and much of Asia. When the European terrorist Otto von Bismarck touches off an international conspiracy, Scott and Mik are charged with exposing the plot against the Empire.
Their adventure takes them from the sands of Memphis to a lush New World, home of the Incan Tawantinsuyu, a rival empire across the glittering Atlantic Ocean. Encompassing Quetzal airships, operas, blood sacrifice and high diplomacy, Three Princes is a richly imagined, cinematic vision of a modern Egyptian Empire.
Tell me, doesn’t that sound like it could be a blast and a half?
Well, sadly, the reality is that, despite what looks like some interesting world-building, the actual novel is borderline unreadable because of the poor quality of the prose. With this one I barely made it less than 10% in before giving up. Because of that small sample size I won’t rate it on GoodReads or write a full review.
I’m basing this on an advance uncorrected proof, not a final copy, so I’m not going to quote examples of what really ticked me off. It’s quite possible that an editor had another run through this one and cleaned it up some. Gods, I really hope so, because I was involuntarily reaching for my red pencil in virtually every paragraph. Clunky sentences, characters with truly cringe-worthy dialogue, and one of the most over-the-top examples of pathos right in the first few chapters made me realize that Three Princes is just not for me. (The pathos was such that, if this were a Monty Python skit, a guy in plate armor would have walked up to the main character to hit him with a plucked chicken. And once I had that image in my head, it was game over for me.)
Final verdict: avoid.
So, there you have it, two novels I was excited about but didn’t finish. As for Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina, I think it succeeds in what it sets out to do, and I believe it could do well with younger readers. I probably would have gobbled it up around the time I was reading Dragonlance novels. And as for Three Princes, please, dear reader, take heed of my words and at least sample a chapter or two before you plunk down your hard-earned money for this one. (Note: for another opinion on this book, expressed with more moderation but ultimately similar to mine, check out Justin Landon’s review on Tor.com.)