I was bouncing around websites looking at reviews for something else when I tripped over this. It was free, it had good reviews, it sounded intriguing – a female enforcer (cop) in a steam-punk fantasy setting – so I downloaded the sample, and just kept reading. It’s not deep, but it’s pacy, funny and has interesting characters, and sometimes that’s just what I’m in the mood for.
I’ve never read anything steam-punk before, but it was well done. The setting felt perfectly believable, with steam-powered this, that and the other, and a lot of mechanical devices just there, without too much isn’t-this-clever authorial explanation. And, being fantasy, there’s magic too, which is cool, although it’s a relatively minor part of the story. I very much liked the winter setting, which made the snow and the frozen lake significant factors in the plot. Combined with the steam-powered machinery, this gave the story a nicely atmospheric feel.
The main character, Amaranthe Lokdon (and no, names are not the author’s strongest suit), is terrific – intelligent and self-sufficient, able to think her way out of trouble and only occasionally needing to be rescued by a bloke. I liked Sicarius the laconic assassin too, and super-smart emperor Sespian (see what I mean about the names?). And there’s a backup team of colourful characters, and some perfectly credible villains, too. It’s always nice to find bad guys whose motives are a little more complex than simple global domination (although there was an element of that, too, of course). And all the characters behaved believably; in particular, Amaranthe’s conflicted emotions when face to face with her former enforcer colleagues or when seeing Sicarius in cold assassin mode was nicely done. She felt like a truly rounded personality, if a little unnaturally bouncy and resourceful, but then that very much fits with her being one of only a few female enforcers.
The plot – well, it’s certainly imaginative (not the hackneyed emperor’s-in-trouble motif, but the creative plan to rescue him). There are a lot of implausibilities, it has to be said, and Amaranthe’s unlikely team falls into place surprisingly easily for such a motley crew. Sicarius, in particular, seems like a confirmed loner, yet he signs up for Amaranthe’s slightly hare-brained scheme remarkably easily. And it surprised me how often they walked openly around town, despite Sicarius being a notorious assassin and Amaranthe having her face plastered over the wanted posters, and sometimes Amaranthe was a bit too keen to confront possibly hostile enemies or beasties. But still, her seemingly unlimited capacity for devising ingenious escapes more than compensated, and frequently put a big grin on my face as she insouciantly walked out of yet another scrape.
My only complaint is that sometimes the plot devices were a little too obvious; so when there’s a piece of machinery or a spade lying around, you know it’s going to come in handy before too long. And is it just me, or are there an awful lot of secret passages and ducts in these buildings? I don’t know whether it’s intentional (because the protagonist is mid-twenties), but the book would fit perfectly well as young adult. There’s no swearing or sex, one not-very-graphic near rape (but isn’t there always?) and the violence is not particularly gory. It’s all good clean action-packed stuff, without a single sagging moment. The romance is fairly low-key, too.
The ending is suitably dramatic, and even though the outcome was never really in doubt, it becomes a real page-turner. As always, the situation is resolved by ingenuity and dogged perseverance rather than brute force or magic. Of course this wouldn’t be fantasy without a certain amount of badassery on display, but still, the majority of the fighting is more of the elbow to the chin or tripping up variety, and there’s always an air of disappointment from the heroine that differences couldn’t be resolved more peaceably. It’s notable, actually, how often Amaranthe simply talks her way out of trouble. This is an entertaining caper with loads of humour, a believable and interesting setting, and a nice mixture of characters. Despite the implausibilities and contrivances of the plot, it’s a fast, enjoyable read. Four stars. [First posted on Goodreads April 2012]
Nathan’s Review (published 1/17/13)
One of the hardest things about doing a blog with several reviewers is I often want to immediately go read a book that was just reviewed for the site. Usually I refrain and tell myself to wait a while, but this time I couldn’t resist. Thanks Pauline!
Steampunk in a good way; it is much more concerned with the characters and the plot than it is about coming up with lots of gadgets. Amaranthe Lokdon is one of the few female enforcers on the, um, force. Until recently the job wasn’t available to women, and Amaranthe is finding the glass ceiling is holding strong against any future promotion. But after singlehandedly busting up a robbery attempt she catches the eye of the Emperor Sespian, and things may start going her way. The emperor’s chief advisor gives her a personal mission, to kill famous assassin Sicarius. Of course things are going to spiral out of control, and after finding out she has been sold out, she turns to criminal endeavors in an attempt to foil plots against the emperor she is still loyal to.
The pacing is lighting fast. By keeping the story fairly simple the fast pace should never lose the reader. The smart plan Amaranthe comes up with has a lot of loose ends that she needs to tie up, and the group she puts together cleverly finds their way through many of them, while avoiding the dangers coming from both enforcers and criminal gangs. Lots of fun adventures, and there was a good amount of humor (mostly from banter between Amaranthe’s group).
Amaranthe is a great character, confident and resourceful. At times she has to be rescued, but usually she finds her own way out of problems, and at times she does the rescuing. Her motley band of misfits is an engaging bunch as well. The male escort turned bodyguard was constantly entertaining, and almost always funny, but proved to be more than comic relief. He was easily my favorite supporting character. The main villain throughout the book is no doubt evil, but still is doing what he feels is best for the empire. Even emotionless assassin Sicarius proves to have a little more to him than killing.
Oftentimes authors think they are smarter than the reader and try to sneak in clues that are more obvious than they realize. Buroker does the opposite, to a really neat affect. I rolled my eyes at how obvious it was the emperor was being poisoned (minor spoiler sorry, but this happens very early in the book). But to my surprise, Amaranthe figures this out almost immediately, I didn’t sit on this as a reader wondering when she would figure it out. Another time a character gives a James Bond villain type speech, with all the motives and plans spelled out. But rather than buy the speech, our protagonist wonders if he was instead trying to influence her or her cohorts.
There are a few plot lines that were a little too simple for my tastes. Every building had a secret passage or two, people acted the way Amaranthe hoped a little too often, and her group followed Amaranthe loyally almost immediately, with no real reason.
Anachronist’s review (published 09-19-2013)
A high fantasy novel with steampunk elements, featuring an intrepid female protagonist and a stone-faced, ninja-like assassin who simply have to work together and can’t help liking each other more and more – what can go wrong? Add to that a handful of colourful secondary characters: an elderly professor, drowning his sorrows in wine, a handsome and vain swordsman, a surly street rat dabbing in magic, a young and idealistic emperor who, living in a splendid isolation, is being slowly poisoned by his closest advisor…sounds so nice, right? And yet…
Ok, let’s start on a positive note. The camraderie and interaction between the characters themselves was the best thing about this book, and honestly, it could be quite humorous at times. And here my praise stops – even it did not make up for the shortcomings in the main leads and the story itself.
Somehow neither the feisty Amaranthe Lokdon, nor the mysterious and deadly effective Sicarius, always clad in fitted dark clothing, won my heart. Ok, I admit it, perhaps it is too early to judge them so harsh, it is just the first part of a long series but they all seemed a tad too schematic – to a point when I could easily guess their thoughts and choices even before they opened their mouths or did anything. Their roles were also pretty clear from the very beginning. Maldynado, the most handsome gigolo and coxcomb in the city, and Books, the unhappy prof turned drunkard, were destined to provide comic relief whenever the sour Sicarius and the surly former gang member, Aksytr, were making the narration uncomfortably stiff. Amaranthe was there to attract trouble and then save the day, the emperor and the rest of her band from venal courtiers, sadistic magicians, brutal enforcers but mainly from themselves. Sometimes, I admit, she was being sweet, but more often she was obnoxiously noble – to such a point that I had to roll my eyes and remind myself of some of those deliciously dark antiheroes who pick their teeth with honourable men and women. It is such a kind of heroine which unleashes my worst instincts. Her goodness of heart is supposed to turn even the most hard-hearted criminal into her ally, she outwits the most powerful and corrupt politicians in the empire, while outthinking the most devious foreign spies and wizards. Reading about it you better never ask yourself ‘how come’ because the moment you do so you are doomed and the whole reading enjoyment is evaporating like champagne bubbles.
Now there is the romance between Amaranthe and Sicarius. Perhaps not a bad idea per se; still I couldn’t forgive the fact that it has been moving slower than a drugged sloth in a sheepskin catsuit on a greased branch; I know the purpose of that pacing – I don’t doubt that the romance will be artificially dragged on and on until the very last installment (the series features seven books, no mean feat) where most probably those two will finally kiss and proclaim that they love each other. Still I resent it. It’s like buttering a slice of bread with just a fraction of a normal portion you need to do it right – frustrating to say the least of it.
The action is nonstop – it is one of these novels which can make you almost physically tired. Amaranthe gets in so many scrapes and scuffles, is captured, escapes, is recaptured, escapes again… I forget how many times. Her captors are pretty inept and some of her escapes are pretty implausible so you should keep a very tight control on the logical part of your mind while reading about them. Now those names…Maldynado? Seriously? Why not marinade when we are already there? Sicarius? Sure, otherwise we wouldn’t guess he is a perfect, cold-blooded killing machine. Emperor Sespian? Why stop short of thespian? The capital of the empire is called…Stumps *rolleye* because no other name would be more imperial. The main baddie’s name is Hollowcrest, making you wonder why the young Emperor trusted him at all…oh wait, he was so naïve and trusting, poor thing, he most probably couldn’t help himself even if all his excuses ring a bit hollow.
Definitely something for younger/less blasé readers than me. It might be just because of my dark fantasy fixation but I think the only way to enjoy this novel is to read it as a comedy, ignoring the missteps as far as the plot goes and laughing at the characters mercilessly. I don’t know if it is enough to make me pick the second book.