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Monday, March 2, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Blade's Edge (reviewed by David Stewart, Justine Bergman, Lukasz Przywoski and Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Blade's Edge over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Virginia thinks dangling from the tops of hundred foot cliffs is a good time. She also enjoys hauling a fifty pound backpack all over the Grand Canyon and sleeping under the stars. Sometimes she likes running for miles through the desert, mountains, or wooded flatlands, and she always loves getting lost in new places where she may or may not speak the language.

From surviving earthquakes in Japan, to putting out a small forest fire in Montana, Virginia has been collecting stories from a very young age. She works hard to make her fiction as adventurous as her life and her life as adventurous as her fiction. Both take a lot of imagination.

FORMAT/INFO: Blade's Edge is 310 pages long. This is the first volume of the Chronicles of Gensokai series.

The book was self-published by the author on January 23rd, 2015 and is available as an e-book and paperback. Cover art and design by Juan Carlos Barquet.


I was excited when the lists for the 2019 SPFBO were announced. I saw Blade’s Edge’s cover and the striking East-Asian themes spoke to the Japan-loving nerd that is always hovering near the edge of my professional demeanor. Then the book was stripped away from FBC with absolutely no explanation, and I was crushed. This was of course before I knew that the SPFBO 2019 finals would be packed with Japanese-themed fantasy. Having read all three of these ambitious novels, I can say that I am happy not to have made the decision to push one of them to the finals because they are all deserving and it would have been tough to choose. 

Oddly enough, all three of these books are wildly different, despite their shared setting. Blade’s Edge is potentially the most “Japanese” of the bunch in that it is set in a very Japanese-like land that is also quite grounded in reality. Having Japanese literature as my second great love behind fantasy means that I read a hell of a lot of Japanese translated fiction, and to my semi-trained eye, Blade’s Edge felt the most authentic compared to the standard fiction from Japan that I’ve read. This is impressive given that McClain is not herself a Japanese author, but it is clear that she has a great love for Japanese history and culture, and it really shows in her treatment of this pseudo-Japanese setting. 

That said, the adherence to a historically-based Japan also means that McClain’s writing feels hampered. It almost feels more like historical fantasy than secondary world fantasy, despite her Gensokai being a fictional place. This is not strictly a problem, and there is a place for historical fantasy, but the push to prove this a secondary world feels inauthentic at times. 

The setting isn’t the heart of my problem with Blade’s Edge though. There is something missing in this novel, the kind of indefinable something that I likely won’t elucidate with this review. The story has merit. It tells of two girls, inseparable early in life but driven apart by circumstance. They each must strive in their own new worlds against a patriarchal, nobility-driven society that wants to see them and their inherent magical powers tamped down like a snuffed flame. They both manage to find sympathetic ears and eventually are reunited in dramatic and climactic ways. In theory, this sounds exciting and like fertile soil for good plot. Unfortunately, there never is any real excitement in the novel, despite some fight scenes that are mostly glossed over with people simply doing amazing things without much preamble. Topping it off is a climax that feels completely contrived and actually left me severely disappointed in how little sense it made compared to the rest of the story - a scene that speaks only to character emotion in a novel that is entirely about real consequences. 

But perhaps the lackluster plot would have moved me more had I actually cared about the characters in McClain’s SPFBO entry. It’s really surprising to me that I connected so little to either Mishi or Taka. My absolute favorite character type is the powerful female protagonist who spends most of a novel finding her power and then uses it to great effect. This is 100% what I want from almost anything I read. Blade’s Edge has it, but the characters affected me to such a minor degree that this thing that I love ended up having almost no impact. Again, this is a hard critique to put one’s finger on - what was it exactly that failed to inspire me about either character? I don’t know. I only know that neither of these young ladies felt particularly vibrant to me, and by the end of the novel I wanted someone else to root for. 

Blade’s Edge is the very definition of a competent novel. It’s well written, nearly error-free, and it flows nicely. What it lacks are the indefinable touches of magic that a winner of this type of contest absolutely needs, and what any novel that seeks to strike a chord in its reader needs. Perhaps this book touched some in that way, but despite it being heavily stacked to do so with me, a lover of Japanese fiction and strong female protagonists, it failed to resonate in almost any way with me. It’s a decent book, no question, but in the end I found it disappointing. 


I like it when authors look for influences further than in an imaginary medieval Europe. I’m not alone, as clearly seen by an increasing number of Asian-inspired fantasy books. Blade’s Edge takes place in a setting strongly influenced by feudal Japan history, traditions, and myths. Kami (Shinto spirits) are real and they influence the world and interact with the living. The magic, based on Zen meditation practices, involves mastery of the elements and requires a solid grasp of inner energy’s working, and self-restraint.

Kisōshi are an elite, magically enhanced protectors of the realm. Only men can join them as no woman is born with elemental powers. At least that’s what the Rōjū council wants people to believe. They’re ready to kill innocent children to keep the truth from citizens. Mishi and Taka, two orphan girls who meet in an orphanage, share not only a beautiful and lasting friendship but also immense elemental powers they need to hide.

The girls are separated from each other in the early chapters. We observe their growth and development of their powers as their plotlines start to converge. Mishi becomes a fierce and dangerous warrior, more competent and deadly than any male Kisōshi. Taka becomes a healer. Both undergo training from Kami (powerful spirits). Both meet sweet boys they initially dislike (although things don’t turn the way one would suspect. A good thing.)

Blade’s Edge builds the plot on well-known tropes (magic school, an orphan with immense powers etc.) but also crafts an intriguing new angle on the formula. Because I have a soft spot for magical training arcs I wish McClain had spent more time showing Mishi and Taka’s training with Kami. She didn’t but I understand the choice. What we get allows us to understand the extent and limitations of their powers and focus on a well-thought-out plot and strong twists instead. The narrative stays focused and things develop at a steady pace.

The cast of characters is diverse, and it’s good to see the female characters playing leading roles as convincingly as their male counterparts. Both Mishi and Taka are bright, proactive, resourceful and good at heart. As a warrior, Mishi struggles with all the killing she has to do, but her inner conflicts lack credibility and could use some fine-tuning. McClain repeats time and again that Mishi feels bad about the killing and won’t do it anymore, but, truth be told, it’s not something I felt as a reader. I think showing instead of telling is one aspect of an engaging storytelling McClain has yet to fully master.

That said, the plot engaged me and the build-up to the climax kept me at the edge of the seat.

Unfortunately, the ending itself felt too tidy and convenient. Don’t misunderstand me - I have nothing against stories that don’t finish with everyone broken and miserable, and the world destroyed. I just prefer when things don’t get too easy the closer to the end we get. Here, though, everything felt too tidy, happened too fast, was slightly anticlimactic. And we’re speaking about a huge social change.

Sure, we’re told one of the characters can no longer live the life she used to live but I must take the author’s word for it as I don’t think she portrayed this change convincingly enough.

One more thing. McClain uses a lot of Japanese or pseudo-Japanese terminology throughout the story, and I applaud her for including an excellent glossary at the beginning of the ebook version. Seriously, more writers should do it. Having a glossary at the end of the paperback comes handy, but in ebooks, I prefer to read and memorize it before starting the story.

I liked Blade’s Edge. Victoria McClain has a smooth touch with characters and plotlines. Her focused narrative should keep most readers engaged in the story and the characters’ arcs. I’ve already bought the sequel and plan to read it soon.

Final SPFBO Score



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