Hi friends! You might know that [adult] high fantasy romance is totally “my thing.” So when Anna Kashina contacted me about reviewing her upcoming book I was first, pretty starstruck, then [pretty immediately] was like “DOES IT FEATURE ADULT CHARACTERS AND IS THERE ROMANCE?!” And when she answered “yes” I was like “WOULD YOU BE WILLING TO BE A GUEST AT ALBTALBS?!!?” And she said yes!!! So here we are! I’m so excited to welcome Anna Kashina today! Her newest book Shadowblade is out today!
Romance in blade fights
There are two things I find irresistible in fantasy novels. One is a good romantic subplot, well balanced and integral to the story. The other is a good blade fight – especially the kind with a lot of cool technique behind it. It’s an additional bonus – as well as a challenge – to make these fights emotionally gripping, as well as being technically cool. But if one manages to achieve all this, there is only one more step to the ultimate prize: to combine the two, using blade fights as a tool to advance the romance. It’s so rewarding when it’s done well.
I am a sucker for a dark and dangerous male lead with a morally complex character. A superb swordsman, trained to become an elite assassin, in my mind, cannot fail as a romantic hero. In my books, I love to match these kind of guys with strong women who can stand up to them, and have hidden strengths of their own. When developing these characters and their relationships, a sword fight can become more engaging than a love scene, and so much more effective in showing off their strengths and limitations, as well as their morally complex sides.
In my new novel, Shadowblade, I fully allowed myself to give in to the enjoyment of combining romance and blade fights, on the backdrop of a complex political plot designed to overturn the balance of powers in the Empire. The two main characters are both members of the elite Jaihar Order that trains the best swordsmen for the Emperor. Naia, a young trainee who gets into trouble with her superiors and nearly ruins her future as a warrior, is chosen as a pawn in this political game. Karrim, the top Jaihar blade with a notorious reputation that spawns many wicked rumors, is sent to evaluate her. They clash from the moment they see each other, and to me, their interaction is one of the main things that made the story work out exactly the way I wanted. Putting them together was one of the most enjoyable things I ever did, and in the end, it made writing Shadowblade feel more like indulgence than work. With their chemistry, all I needed to do is put them together, then sit back and watch. They’ve continued to surprise me, all the way until the end.
The excerpt below is Naia and Karrim’s first sword fight, which sets up the stage for their relationship, and ultimately for the role Naia will play in the imperial succession.
Shadowblade by Anna Kashina
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…
Naia tried to look natural as she ran her eyes over the array of weapons in the stand. Karrim offered her no guidance, so after a moment’s hesitation she lifted out a pair of scimitars she had been eyeing earlier, weighing them in her hands. Perfectly balanced, of course. Their edges were blunt, as expected for practice swords, but it seemed like nothing a day in the smithy wouldn’t be able to fix.
Karrim stepped past her, casually graceful as he picked up two short daggers from the very front row. Unimpressive, insofar as anything here could be described this way, a highly inferior choice against the scimitars she now held. Mesmerized, she followed him to the flattened area in the center of the courtyard.
“Show me what you’ve learned so far.” Karrim squared off to her and raised his daggers in a defensive hold.
Inviting an attack. She spun her blades as she advanced, opening with the head-on she’d become famous for on the lower grounds.
She expected – if not to hit him, at least to engage him in the fight. But nothing like this happened. Despite the close range, Karrim simply shifted out of her way without touching her or using his weapons at all. For an eerie moment it seemed to her that he was immaterial, made of air, even though she knew this couldn’t possibly be true.
Naia pressed the attack, putting all her ability into moving as fast as she possibly could. She thought she’d be able to match him now – or at least do better than before. But Karrim shifted styles too. He turned, sliding between her uselessly flailing blades without making contact. Like a ghost. Surely he wasn’t one, but she had yet to find any proof that he was real, and not an illusion conjured by her overactive mind.
His blades. Focus on his blades. She could sense the steel of his daggers, calling to her. She honed in on the feeling, reaching toward them. He evaded, but she pursued, relying on her senses rather than sight.
When their blades finally clashed, the sound rang out loudly through the courtyard. Karrim stepped forward, suddenly solid, and far more powerful than anyone she’d ever faced. His moves seemed too fast to follow as he raised his daggers, twisting them around the length of her scimitars, as if their steel somehow became flexible, like rope. He slid them along the edges of her blades with a long, drawn-out sound – a half-screech, half-moan that echoed with a tremor all the way down her tiring arms. His daggers twisted again, a short move that somehow rendered her weapons useless in her hands, spinning them in a movement contrary to her frantic efforts to control them. She lost her grip – first her left hand, then her right, helplessly watching her blades fly away from her, as if anxious to get as far from her as possible.
Before she could go after them, Karrim stepped up and crossed his daggers over her throat, pinning her in place.
Naia froze. Karrim’s face was very close to her, his eyes filling her vision, his face calm, mask-like. Dear Sel, he isn’t even out of breath. Her own breath came out ragged, far too uneven for the short fight they had had.
Even for her level, she made more mistakes in this fight than she had any right to. But none of these thoughts compared to the realization of how ridiculous it was for her to strive for a Jai rank. As she stood in front of Karrim, locked in his hold, trying and failing to calm her labored breath, she dragged the thought through her mind. Was she cut out to do this?
Karrim kept his hold a moment longer, then lowered his daggers and stepped away, tossing them back into the stand. She searched around with her eyes until she spotted her scimitars in the grass lining the edge of the courtyard. Shakily, she picked them up and returned them to the stand too. The skin of her throat itched, even though she knew that Karrim had pressed too lightly to do any damage. Still, the memory was going to stay with her for a long time.
“Tell me how it felt,” Karrim said.
She frowned, unsure of what he was asking. Did he mean, disappointing? Disastrous? To her surprise she realized that none of these definitions matched the sensations she experienced in this fight. Despite how tired she was, she wanted more. She wanted to cross blades with Karrim again.
“Eye-opening,” she said.
About the author: Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her “Majat Code” series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Her newest novel, Shadowblade, is upcoming from Angry Robot Books on May 7, 2019.
So! What’d you think?! Do you like high fantasy romance?! … And – BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Check back in a week for a giveaway/to know what is up for grabs 😀 You know you want to! The more engaged you are, the more likely you are to win! 😀 (And yes, my review of this book is incoming!) And ok y’all that cover! 😍