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.