So there I was, struggling to get invested in a book with a fairly lack-lustre main character, a difficult alternate history setting and an opening stuffed with explosions and other dramas that I really don’t care about. And then along comes Qhora the Incan princess, with her pet sabre-toothed cat, and suddenly things are interesting. A sabre-toothed pet? Yes, count me in.
This has one of the most unusual settings I’ve encountered – a world where the ice age never ended, Europe is still in the grip of snow and glaciers and civilisation is clustered around a narrow strip of usable land. There are some locations with recognisable names – Marrakesh, Hellas, Italia, Persia, the Atlanteen Ocean – there’s an Incan empire across the sea, and there are some interesting beasties (the afore-mentioned sabre-toothed cat, plus a large bird used for riding). There’s a motley array of countries, all of them with their own belief systems, technologies and customs, trying to get along (or not). And there’s a nice steampunk feel – steam powered trains and airships, plus guns and electricity. It’s all very carefully thought out, and thank goodness, there are maps at the front and a vast, detailed glossary at the back.
There are half a dozen point of view characters, some with only an occasional chapter or two, which reveal all the various aspects of the complicated plot. Yes, this is one of those tales with a huge amount going on in several different places, and there’s a multitude of conspiracies and machinations to try to untangle. The problem is that most of these characters are not terribly interesting. Taziri, the airship engineer with the husband and baby at home, veers from feisty initiative to near-apathy. Syfax the soldier is a standard-issue macho type, solving all problems by bluster and fists. Qhora, the Incan with her Spanish lover and pet beasties, is more interesting, but even so she doesn’t exactly set the pages alight. There are hordes of sidekicks, as well, equally unenthralling. Frankly there are too few lulls between the action for any of these people to come alive, since they spend most of their time reacting to the mayhem all around them. There are some moments of introspection, which nicely illuminate the author’s strange and fascinating world despite feeling a little contrived (do people actually stop and discuss their beliefs while waiting for the bad guys to show up?), but otherwise it’s all explosions and fights and chases and narrow escapes.
I don’t read a lot of steampunk, so I’m not an expert, but I rather liked the imaginative way the technology is integrated into the plot. It’s not merely a backdrop for the action, and it’s more than a quick fix when our heroes (and heroines) get into trouble. I also liked that, without fuss or fanfare, Marrakesh society is matriarchal, although it’s disappointing that so many of the female characters are either villains or else very passive, being pushed around by others. Taziri, in particular, who ought to be an assertive female lead, spends way too much time drooping around and whining about her husband and baby. Still, it’s nice to find a fantasy society that’s a little outside the usual pseudo-medieval or Victorian box. The politics are a bit simplistic, but that’s a very common (and minor) flaw.
This is an intriguing piece of work, with an original and well-thought-out setting, but the constantly churning high-action plot doesn’t make up for the lack of deep characterisation. I confess that I got bored with the repetitive chasing about the countryside interspersed with yet more gun/knife fights, and skimmed a bit towards the end. I would have liked a little more sabre-toothed cat and giant bird, and a lot less fighting. Recommended for fans of high-octane steampunk, but for me it fell a little flat. I’m in a generous mood, so let’s say three stars.