BLADE’S EDGE by Virginia McClain (SPFBO Finalist Review)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
And if you have no idea what’s going on here, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!
So here we go, we’re ramping up the reviews and today we have: Blade’s Edge (Chronicles of Gensokai #1) by Virginia McClain
Mishi and Taka live each day of their lives with the shadow of death lurking behind them. The struggle to hide the elemental powers that mark the two girls as Kisōshi separates them from the other orphans, yet forges a deep bond between them.
When Mishi is dragged from the orphanage at the age of eight, the girls are unsure if or when they will find each other again. While their powers grow with each season-cycle, the girls must come to terms with their true selves–Mishi as a warrior, Taka as a healer–as they forge separate paths which lead to the same horrifying discovery.
The Rōjū council’s dark secret is one that it has spent centuries killing to keep, and Mishi and Taka know too much. The two young women have overcome desperate odds in a society where their very existence is a crime, but now that they know the Rōjū’s secret they find themselves fighting for much more than their own survival
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
How long have we been using these prompts, Laura? And now finally I get it right and look at the cover before I read the book.
Oh, only about two years. *eyeroll*
OK the cover gives off a strong eastern vibe, fortress, battling armies and foreground protagonist(?) with her (?) back to the reader, wielding sword and flame. So I’m expecting a kind of “Mulan” meets “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” kind of tale. Let’s see if I’m right.
It lived up well to the expectations that the cover set. The Asian aesthetic is confirmed with a number of Japanese words which my kindle helpfully defines for me as well as a few Japanese sounding in-world terms that the author has or will define for me I am sure. A very engaging start following a pair of orphan girls, Mishi and Taka, both blessed with an innate magic ability that would endanger them in a world where only men are considered able to cope with magic beyond a certain basic level. Orphans, separation, societal misogyny, mysterious parentage, males who embody the patriarchy and males who subvert it, two very different kinds of training environment, and a strong mature prose style – avoiding the kind of indulgence in their own plot and writing that you sometimes get with novice writers. Yup – this has definitely started well.
The prose generally works well but there are a few sentences that get overlong and feel clunky to read, the kind that might fail the “read out loud” test in the editing process.
The cover is eye-catching and professional, though at second glance it’s a bit unclear what’s happening (is the fire coming from her hand, or is it part of the scene below?). On the inside, the chapter headings are very aesthetically pleasing, and I like that we’re immediately immersed in the Japan-like setting.
Unfortunately, I did not have as positive a start as Theo and Laura!
I did like the cover; although not initially as eye-catching as some of the others, once you stop and focus on it, the detail really pulls you in.
I think the foreword is working against this book in a big way, I can’t express enough just how much it annoyed me. Firstly, the author’s insistence that we don’t need to read the foreword was redundant – if we don’t need to read it, then it doesn’t need to be there. The author’s constant reiteration that we don’t need to read it, made me determined to read it to see what the point was. So already starting on a back foot, I was then somewhat frustrated by the author’s explanation that this book isn’t an historical fiction. After a while, it started to feel a little patronising. I’m sure readers are capable of understanding that a fantasy novel might be influenced by a culture, but not be representing that culture in an historically accurate manner. I also think confessing that you’re using the influence of Japanese language and environment to create a certain “feel” doesn’t send a great message, in terms of how authors represent other cultures. At the end of the day, just a simple author’s note stating that this work is influenced by but not historically representative of feudal Japan would have sufficed.
Wow, I’m glad my kindle took me straight past the foreword into the meat of the book. I can see why that opening experience would have grated, Beth. If an author thinks something needs explaining, then that means they lack confidence in either themselves or their readers – neither of which is a good look.
When I opened the book, it started on chapter one, so I didn’t even realise there was a foreword until you mentioned it! I’m quite thankful for that, actually. I tend to find that lengthy forewords full of caveats signify a lack of trust in the reader, which often rubs me up the wrong way too.
You’ve both really hit the nail on the head, I felt like the author was assuming I wouldn’t understand what was happening here.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
Mishi and Taka make a good mismatched pairing, the warrior and the healer both endowed with Kiso – a kind of magical power (or midichlorian count?) – but linked to different elements, fire for combat and water for healing. They hold their own as protagonists and do make the reader worry about them in a setting that feels fresh – even though, or perhaps because, it draws so heavily on a Japanese aesthetic.
I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve had other books in the competition that have perhaps represented that aesthetic in more detail, but I didn’t feel the setting was all that fresh sorry Theo!
You’re probably right Beth. In my reading order this was the first finalist that I came to with a far eastern type setting, which may have swayed my impression towards the favourable end.
I wanted to like the other characters more, but – while distinctive – they lacked the subtle nuances on which to hang my affection, defined by their roles, more than who they were. The fiery dragon trainer, the wise old sensai, the treant like tree spirit and the grieving grandmother with a secret plan. They work well enough as an ensemble to deliver an engaging story, that was a pleasant read. However, I would have liked to see them express more complex rationales, intricate depths of backstories that could lift them clearer of the trap of tropes.
It’s interesting that you say that, Theo. I’ve been struggling to place why I haven’t felt more attached to either of the two protagonists – especially since both are sympathetic and engaging in their own ways – and I think it’s because of this lack of depth and nuance throughout. Rather than fleshed-out characters, everyone feels more like the concept of a character. For me, a large part of this is also because a lot of the key events – and character-defining moments – happen off-page. It isn’t until much later in the book that we see our heroes start properly forming relationships with other characters; instead of developing a bond with Ami and Sachi, we instead have to wait until halfway through the book to see Mishi befriend Kusuko and Katagi. And while Taka does have limited interactions with side characters like Kiko, Tsuku and Yasuhiko (who are an awesome elderly couple), the reader never actually gets to witness the supposed ‘core’ of her development – i.e. Yanagi’s training, not to mention Taka’s entire ability to communicate with animals. It’s frustrating; I was given all these reasons to be invested in both characters, and I wanted to be invested in them, but too much of their development was told rather than shown, and so I found my connection with them to be sadly limited.
I didn’t connect with these characters at all unfortunately, and I had put it down to the flickering jumps in time and between perspectives; but what you both say also makes so much sense. Normally, I don’t have a problem with multiple PoVs and jumps in time at all – it’s quite a strong staple of fantasy books! But I felt the jumps were so frequent, that just as I was getting used to a character, we left them for the other one, and when we came back to them there’d be another jump in time so there’d be a whole new scenario to get used to. I thought that was why I struggled to connect to them, because I felt I was constantly getting to know them, however it would have been possible to have a stronger sense of them had they been, as you say Laura, fleshed-out. I think it would have worked much better had we stayed with one girl for some time, then switched to the other girl and gone back in time – rather than flicker between the both whilst keeping on the same time line?
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
McClain has a tendency to skip over parts of action, as though in editing she has decided to delete whole chunks. For example we discover we jump to one character from a scene of grief to a scene some months later where she has affected an escape which we did not see and only get told about when she related it to a third character many pages later. It’s an odd feature though it does work – and I’m all for economy in writing, if you can cut something and still preserve the story then you probably should cut it. But these occasional leaps are still unusual enough to surprise.
This was one of my biggest issues with the book. As I mentioned above, the sheer amount of important events that happen off-page left me frequently feeling as though I’d missed something. By not permitting the reader to witness some of the protagonists’ life-altering decisions (and the thought processes/entire run-up to those decisions), such as Taka’s escape, the author denies us the satisfaction of a full character arc and instead makes her heroes increasingly hard to relate to or sympathise with.
That’s not to say I wasn’t rooting for Taka and Mishi the whole time; just that it was more on principle than on a personal or emotional level.
Yes, well put, Laura, it is very much a matter of principle that makes the reader want to see the ill-treated women (and their male allies) triumph in a world of institutionalised misogyny.
We miss important scenes, and instead get an agonisingly over-detailed description of Mishi scaling a cliff…
The plot as a whole is coherent but for me the part of the book that didn’t live up to the promise of its premise and its world. The good guys’ central plan just seemed too weak an idea on which to hang a rebellion, still less a whole book and it made the convergence of everyone on the final denouement feel a bit contrived.
And this was my other big issue. That both parts of this underground rebellion were just waiting for each of the main characters to fall into place made it feel as though neither Taka nor Mishi had any agency of their own. It also felt as though neither character had to undergo much hardship in order to get there, because we’re shown very little of it (thanks in part to the time jumps). For a protagonist to be truly compelling – especially in a story like this, where so much is apparently hinging on them helping the rebellion – the reader has to be convinced that the events which unfold could not do so without them, flaws and all (for example in Star Wars, where the main characters – Rae, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren etc. – each drive the plot forward (for better or worse) through their individual actions and motivations). In Blade’s Edge, although the goal of overthrowing the current regime is clearly admirable, I just wasn’t convinced that a) either Taka or Mishi was personally invested in what she was doing, and b) that the rebellion wouldn’t have happened without their involvement.
I didn’t get far enough to discover what happened to this rebellion, unfortunately frustration made me put the book down before I even reached the 50% mark. I couldn’t understand why a novice’s first mission was one that was not only “vital” to “the cause” but also potentially fatal. We’re told early on that other women have been trained there. Mishi’s subsequent response to the mission annoyed me also – like Laura said, it comes down to investment, and I just didn’t have the patience for her to work through that and ultimately find it (or not)
I’ve already touched on my issues with the structure during the character section. I felt there were some choices of language which were quite repetitious; eyebrows seemed to like raising into hairlines quite a lot, and the word “cycle” was really starting to grate. There were moments that were phrased really nicely, for example:
“The way Ami said that last sentence made it seem as though it was something she’d been taught to repeat, but held little enthusiasm for.”
But there was little consistency to this style, as we were also treated to lines such as:
“And if warm liquid slid from their eyes and mingled on the cheeks pressed side to side, no one ever spoke of it.”
“That’s fine. I have a strange past, it matches my strange eyes,”
I was really disappointed that (spoilers) one of the secondary characters is raped and subsequently dies from the ensuing child birth. Which in turn spurs her friend into action to find her family and seek, presumably because I didn’t continue reading, vengeance. Such atrocities happen and should not be ignored nor swept under any kind of carpet. But I do not believe that writing them into fantasy as character motivations is raising awareness of the issue or tackling it in any form.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
For me, this was the strongest aspect of the book. The setting is very well realised and felt both different and authentic. The magic systems and the societal misogyny were both consistent and logical foundations for a story of rebellion.
Agreed! As much as I struggled to stay engaged with the story for the reasons given above, I found myself continuously admiring the immersive worldbuilding touches. (Though some terms – ‘cycles’ and ‘tatami’ in particular – were used a bit excessively and eventually grew repetitive.)
Ha yes Laura! As I said, I was a bit fed up of hearing about cycles all the time!
I did like the magic system. I think if perhaps we’d have been able to settle with the characters for a little longer before moving on, it would have been nice to see them use their magic more. It felt like there was plenty of talk about it, we were told about it a lot, but there seemed few instances of when we were shown it. Even during Mishi’s final “test” fight, we don’t see her use her fire.
It definitely felt like there was a lot of wasted potential there. The fact that we don’t really get to experience either girl’s training and development makes their magic and unique skills feel more like garnish for the story than a staple ingredient.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
Here’s one where I made a note to myself – you see you don’t need fancy words, you just need to use them in interesting ways.
“The air was suddenly hot and thick with the smell of wet, green life.”
Other turns of phrase also caught my eye “the tang of sorrow” or clouds “forming a silky chain around the range of mountains.”
I’ve mentioned a couple, but I liked this one quite early on:
“Mishi’s voice was as small as the spots on a sparrow’s back.”
Blade’s Edge is a strong well fashioned book with a distinctive setting and challenge for its two protagonists. Definitely a worthy SPFBO finalist, but I would have liked more complexity and nuance in the plot and the secondary characters.
It isn’t often I find myself saying this, but if Blade’s Edge had been twice the length – and if the increased word count were used to flesh out all the things mentioned above – I think it would genuinely be a brilliant book. As it is, though, it feels more like the outline of a book; key worldbuilding aspects are present, as are major plot points and character milestones, but it’s all the stuff in between that’s missing. As such, I never felt as invested in the characters’ plight as I wanted to be, and eventually (at around 60%) grew apathetic enough to stop reading.
Unfortunately I just found I wasn’t enjoying this one, and certainly couldn’t see the positives that Theo seems to have. It lacked depth and connection in terms of characters, and it lacked subtlety and finesse in terms of plotting and structure. There were elements that were so promising – strong women training in and using forbidden magic to overthrow a misogynistic patriarchal society… and a dragon! It’s unfortunate that the execution let it down.