Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Strong Females define The First Sword by Anna Kashina

Review of The First Sword by Anna Kashina

In this beautifully detailed fantasy, Anna Kashina creates a world where royal heirs are tested by a sword through the heart. Survival indicates worthiness of inheriting the throne. The ancient First Sword must be used in the testing, but it has been missing for years. Additionally the powerful Church led by Reverend Haghos works to stamp out magical power by testing all newborns and killing those with magical abilities. The tyranny of the Church is checked somewhat by the Keepers, an ancient order of scholars that develops magical powers.

Far from the dangerous halls of the ruling elite, live Alder, Kyth, and Ellah in the Forestlands. Alder and Kyth grew up believing they were brothers and their friend Ellah harbors the secret of never being tested by the Church.

As can be expected the plot is driven by the quest to control the First Sword and find the royal heir who was whisked away from Church execution at birth.

Kyth emerges as a strong character, and his inner conflicts and fears are communicated well. Alder and Ellah fade a bit through the novel and don't get developed too much, which makes them feel mostly like placeholders, but all three of the teenagers come through with very genuine behaviors. They are impulsive and poor at judging anything, but their friendship and devotion to each other are heartwarming.

The real strengths of the novel come through in the detailed settings and the characters and cultures that the three young people experience upon their quest. One example is the mysterious and potentially dangerous Forest Woman. She seems to be some kind of deity formed of the female energy of the forest. "Her skin was fair and her thick long hair was the color of ripe ivy buds, light brown with a soft golden tint." wrote Kashina in her description of the Forest Woman.

Another compelling character emerges when the young people travel with a nomadic people called the Cha'ori. They travel with a hort led by the foreteller Dagmara, who informs Kyth that her people are not tested by the Church and that she and other Cha'ori have magical powers. The existence of people living outside Church authority is very eye-opening for him. Dagmara embodies a new worldview for Kyth. She is in touch with her magic, very old, and well respected by her people.

Kashina creates another intriguing female character in the assassin Kara. This time the power is based on mental discipline and physical skill. She contrasts with the mystical female characters in the story and provides another view of how female abilities can be developed.

Although The First Sword will feel familiar to fantasy readers because of its formulaic structure, it provides an engaging and suspenseful read. The action builds slowly but becomes riveting near the end. The narrative appeals to all the senses. The author's skill had me tasting the food and feeling the clothes. I also greatly appreciated Kashina's inspirations from the natural world. Little details like naming species of plants during the characters' travels vividly developed the environment.

The First Sword was a very carefully plotted story. All the loose ends get tied up at the end, which is always satisfying. Kashina deploys some fun diversions in the story that made me wonder who was working for who and who was the object of the Church's hunt.

I really have nothing bad to say about the novel. It was an intriguing fantasy, vividly told, and full of genuine feelings. The First Sword has young adult appeal and also plenty of nuances to keep adult readers hooked.