The Edge of the Blade
AAR staffers Maggie Boyd and Caroline Russomanno discuss Jeffe Kennedy’s latest fantasy novel The Edge of the Blade, book two in her The Uncharted Realms series in our latest Pandora’s Box.
In the Thirteen Kingdoms, a woman may sample the pleasures of a man with no strings attached. Jepp, part of the queen’s elite guard and an artist with sharp blades, has sampled more than her share. When a scouting party arrives from far-away Dasnaria, with the handsome and virile Prince Kral at its head, she is more than happy to add a bit of variety to her sexual repertoire. She is far less happy when she learns that simply lying with him creates a bond between them and she is now expected to practice monogamy. Adding insult to injury, events conspire so that the enraged couple is forced to go on a diplomatic mission trip to Dasnaria together. Naturally, the mission is anything but smooth sailing and along the way their diplomat is coerced into becoming a barbarian king’s wife (Pages of the Mind, book one in the series). This leaves Jepp as the sole ambassador to Dasnaria, and since she is as likely to wound with her words as she is to kill with her knives, that does not bode well for the mission. Headed towards a dangerous land with strange customs and no respect for women, Jepp can’t determine what she wants most from Kral: to put the argument about their relationship status to bed and gain some peace or to take him to bed and have their mission explode in passion?
Maggie: What are your thoughts on the novel?
Caroline: The first half of the story (before they crossed the barrier) felt very repetitive to me, and went on longer than it should have. There’s such a fine line between “sexy but snippy banter” and “childish bickering,” and I thought Jepp and Kral were on the wrong side of it. I get that the author wanted to establish Kral’s patriarchal attitudes and Jepp’s fighting skills, but it could have been done much more efficiently.
Maggie: I totally agree. In fact, I would go a step further because I not only found their bickering childish but thought both of them were pretty childish as well. Jepp had none of the traits that make a good battle commander – the ability to think on your feet, adapt to new surroundings and focus on a mission.
I found her unbelievable and very much the kind of character you would only find in a romance novel: superficial warrior skills with none of the cool, watchful reserve the discipline needed to acquire those skills would bring. Kral was a bit better but I felt that his character’s sole reason for existing was to impart an important lesson and as a result, I found him flat.
This was probably one of my biggest issues with the story. I felt the author didn’t match her characters to her plot. It was supposed to be a book about a diplomatic mission, an opportunity to learn about a new culture and a chance for her hero/heroine to possibly learn some new skills, but instead became a treatise on feminism and how any culture that doesn’t value that is just wrong, wrong, wrong. A square peg in a round hole tale can usually work for me but I need to see growth and change to make that happen and I saw none here.
What did you think of the plotting/characterizations?
Caroline: While I agree with you that Kral didn’t start out well, I actually enjoyed his change in the second half of the story. I have read a LOT of misogynist Harlequin heroes and I’m always happy when an author tackles making one grow. The fact that he had a second conflict, about the politics of his home country, also made me see him as less one-note. More… one-track minded.
Too often, in a fantasy setting, you know exactly what the plot is from the beginning (the princess must be rescued, the object must be captured/destroyed/returned, blah blah blah). I liked the fact that I could never have told you what was coming next in this story.
We know that Kral is taking Jepp back to Dasnaria, where she’s taking the place of the woman who was supposed to be the ambassador. She’s supposed to look for someone, but we don’t know much about them. And that’s really all the clues we have. The author hardly tells us anything about Dasnaria until we get there, and the problems Jepp faces aren’t at all the ones I’d have presumed she’d encounter based on the first hundred pages. I appreciated that. It made the story feel more natural and less inevitable/arc-y.
Maggie: I think the fact that I dislike “bickering” romance where the H/h snark their way to love probably colored my thinking. I just couldn’t get into them or their love story. Also, having read the other books in the series I knew who Jepp was looking for and why. I expected pretty much everything she encountered, most especially the person at the end. I expected what was happening to be happening given the events of The Tears of the Rose and The Talon of the Hawk.
Caroline: Ah. This was my first book in the series so that definitely explains that difference.
Maggie: I think that it speaks well of The Edge of the Blade that you can still follow the story, even if you aren’t up on the books in the series.
Moving on, since this is a fantasy novel I want to address the world building in the story. I thought it was one of the stronger aspects – I especially appreciated how Kral’s sisters had adapted to – and learned to work around – their surroundings and cultural limitations; but I still had trouble wrapping my head around a Middle Eastern culture in a Northern climate. As someone who has spent the last twenty years in the North I can tell you that our climate impacts our behavior greatly. Wearing what amounted to a sari and walking around barefoot made no sense in a stone fortress. And to be honest, I felt a sense of intense judgment coming from the author towards the actual cultures that incorporate some of the practices listed in here.
What did you think about the world building?
Caroline: Oh, those outfits! Silk wrapping? Jarring. I couldn’t get past the fact that you could never have sericulture at those temperatures, and thus it’s essentially impossible for silk to be your culture’s staple garment.
I think, though, that if the author had abandoned the silk trappings and the explicit harem, we could have approached the Dasnarians with less Orientalist baggage and appreciated some of the good stuff that’s actually there. After all, it’s not like any one culture has a monopoly on sequestering women and granting political power to men.
I enjoyed the political scheming, and that the author didn’t underestimate the influence and information even sidelined women had. I liked the reaction of one female character to being offered a way out. The Emperor’s mother is also clearly no fool, and I believed in her as a survivor/manipulator character.
It was intriguing and original that the author created a world with extremely powerful magicians, ranging from priests to shapeshifters – and then didn’t make either Kral or Jepp magical in the slightest. You almost never get fantasy stories about the ordinary people moving through the realms, unless you’re dealing with someone who discovers that they were lost at birth or whatever and are secretly super-powerful. I found it original and enjoyable. I also liked that Jepp was shown constantly exercising and going through forms to maintain her military skill.
Maggie: Yes, the sisters and mother were shining stars in the characterization of the book. I liked the subtle way they handled their power, wielding it from the shadows. And I’ll admit, the first book, Mark of the Talla is my only DIK in the series and both characters were magical.
Caroline: How did you like the writing, technically?
Maggie: As far as the writing goes, her prose is fine but for me part of any good writing is meshing the world and characters into the plot and the fact that those things kept pulling me out of the story meant I didn’t really like the writing.
Caroline: I was really, really tired of Jepp’s references to her goddess Danu. I was reading on my phone and I seldom got more than two or three screens without Jepp thanking Danu, blaming Danu, asking Danu to save her or take Kral, or, most annoyingly, wondering “What in Danu?” Is Jepp really unsure about her goddess’s internal organs, or was the author just find/replacing Christian religious expressions like “What in the name of God?”
Maggie: LOL, I had noticed the Danu references but they sort of slid past me. Overall, I found it a bit of a chore to read this book. I couldn’t get into the romance, I couldn’t get into the fantasy and I had no real interest in seeing what would come next. My grade would be a C. Fine prose, adequate completion of the elements of fiction writing but nothing that raised it above a job averagely done.
Caroline: I felt the first half was very sloggy, but unlike you, I had fun with the second half. I enjoyed seeing Jepp and Kral break out of their first-half tough girl/jerk guy ruts and oscillate between ally and obstacle instead of childishly bickering and boinking. They had conflicting goals so the character and plot tension became authentic. By the end, I was definitely sucked in enough to give a B.