Review: Born to the Blade Season One by Michael R Underwood, Marie Brennan, Malika Ann Older & Cassandra Khaw


May Contain Spoilers

Born to the Blade is currently running on Serial Box. Here’s some background on the publisher: Serial Box publishes serialized fiction created by teams of critically acclaimed and best-selling writers. Serials are released through the Serial Box app, website, and third party retailers in weekly installments in both e-book and audio formats. During a three-month season, each episode is a 30 minute read or an hour listen.

I love the concept of Serial Box, but I have such an erratic reading schedule that I prefer having a complete story before I begin reading. I got so burned out trying to keep up with my manga series that I actually stopped reading them for a long, long time. Now that I am devouring them again, I give priority to completed series. The concept of reading a 30 minute serial once a week sounds great, but in reality, I don’t have the staying power to faithfully read each installment, so, thankfully, Serial Box is releasing Born to the Blade in an omnibus edition on June 27, in both ebook and audio, so you read the entire story in one sitting, too!

I love fantasy stories, so when I heard about Born to the Blade, I added it to my TBR. When the publisher offered a review copy of Season One, I did not hesitate to accept it. I love Marie Brennan, and while the other authors are new to me, I was eager to give this serial a test drive. I was a little fearful that the chapters would seem disjointed, as they are written in rotation by the authors. That was unfounded; the episodes flowed together seamlessly, and all of the characters were consistent from chapter to chapter.

The story begins with Kris Denn and Oda no Michiko traveling to Twaa-Fei, the neutral islands hosting the Warders’ Circle. Diplomats from the six nations hold seats on the Circle, and disputes are, in theory, to be voted on by the Circle. If the Warder isn’t happy with the vote, a challenge to a duel can be issued. The duels were so interesting. A bladecrafter carves sigils in the air with their sword, enhancing speed, or strength, or giving them the ability to levitate. The battles were fun to read, and I thought the magic was unique.

Kris is from Rumika, and the birthright of their island is the ability to change genders. Kris is traveling to Twaa-Fei to challenge for a position in the Warders’ Circle. If they succeed, it will be the first time in centuries that a new nation has been admitted to the Circle. There is a lot riding on Kris’ success, and they are feeling very stressed about their ability to emerge from the Gauntlet of challenges unscathed. Rumika is a nation on the rise – they have discovered a secret way to process aerstone, a substance needed to keep the islands afloat, as well as to build new ships to sail the skies between the islands.

Ojo is the Warder from Quloo. Quloo is a nation that is literally sinking. Because they stripped so much aerstone from their islands, they caused an environmental calamity. Now they have closed off their ports to outsiders, and they are trying to purchase as much aesstone to prop up the island as they can. If Rumika is admitted to Circle, they will have a new source of aestone, and Ojo and Kris can make a deal over a cup of tea. If they aren’t admitted to the Circle, it will take a great deal of diplomacy and time that Quloo doesn’t have, to get the vital aestone.

There are a ton of politics put into play in this serial, from the Mertikan Empire plotting to enlarge their territory with more colonies, to the conquered Kakuta and their junior Warder Michiko. Michiko just wants to prove that she’s a loyal subject to Mertika, and she doesn’t want to cause any waves. The birthright of Kakuta is the ability to speak to their direct ancestors, and when Michiko discovers that her past is a lie, she is conflicted about her future. Will she ever fit in with the island born Mertikans? Will her worth ever be accepted?

The birthrights were interesting, too. Depending on which island you are born on, you have a specific ability associated with that island nation. The Kakutans can mediate and speak to their ancestors, something the Mertikans look down on. Why talk to an ancestor when you can remember your past lives? The most useful birthright belonged to an island nation that Quloo blew from the skies and sank into the Mists, obliterating it from future generations. What a waste! While I didn’t like the Quloo government, I liked Ojo, who is helpless to keep events from spiraling out of control and preventing the outbreak of war.

This was a great read, and after about 60% I couldn’t put it down. The beginning was a little bit confusing, and the cast is rather large, which occasionally left me flipping back to remind myself who someone was. I didn’t like some characters as well as others, and I thought, at first, that Kris was too young and too impulsive to be the liaison for their government. Thankfully they matured by the end of this season, but tragedy and loss will do that a person.

I was kind of bummed when Born to Blade Season One ended, because I was so invested in the story, and it just kind of stops. So now I have to wait patiently for Season Two, and I am so bad at waiting patiently! This was a fun read, and if you like politics mingle with your swordplay, I think you will enjoy it too.

Grade: 4.25 stars

Review copy provided by publisher

About the book:

Youth. Ambition. Power. Oda no Michiko and Kris Denn have much of the first two, and crave the last. To get it, all they must do is survive.

For centuries, the Warder’s Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the nations of the sky a way to avoid war, as their chosen warders settle disputes through magical duels of blade and sigil. But that peace is on the edge of crumbling, crushed between the aggression of the Mertikan Empire and the determination of the still-free nations to not be consumed.

Twaa-Fei may be neutral, but it is also home to a million intrigues, schemes, and deadly intentions. Michiko and Kris arrive in this treacherous world together, bladecrafters eager to serve their countries — Michiko as a junior warder for Kakute, a vassal of the empire, Kris as an upstart challenging to win a seat for their home, Rumika, in the Circle. But before the young bladecrafters have even settled in, a power struggle erupts, a man’s head is parted from his shoulders, and every good thing Michiko thinks she knows about the empire comes into question. The two young diplomat-warriors are surrounded by warders of experience, each with their own ambitions: chief among them Warder Ojo, whose home island of Quloo is in danger of falling from the sky, and Warder Lavinia, who represents the empire in all its contempt and brutality.

A storm is coming, and Kris and Michiko stand at its eye. Will it bind the nations of the sky together… or tear them apart?

About Serial Box

Serial Box, which NPR recently called “the HBO of reading,” produces original series that are released in ebook and audio episodes through their app(s), website, and third party retailers (iTunes, Amazon, etc). Readers/listeners pay $1.59 week by week or $18 in advance for a whole season (10-13 episodes). Serial Box brings the power of appointment-based consumption to reading for the first time since Charles Dickens & Little Nell. Visit serialbox.com for more information.

The Team

Marie Brennan (World Fantasy Award finalist, Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel); Malka Older (Infomocracy, Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015); Michael R. Underwood (“Stabby” Award-finalist Genrenauts series, the Ree Reyes Geekomancy series; North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books; Hugo Award-finalist podcaster with “The Skiffy & Fanty Show”); Cassandra Khaw (Clarkesworld, Fireside Fiction, Uncanny, Shimmer, Bearly A Lady, video game writer)