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Steampunk Review: ‘Conspiracy’ by Lindsay Buroker

Possible spoilers from earlier books in the series.

More of the same from Amaranthe and her loveable group of criminals, and in no way is that a bad thing.  For those who don’t know, the series follows former Enforcer Amaranthe and her crew through light steampunk world as they try to clear their name and keep the Empire, and more importantly the Emperor himself, safe from those who want to remake the land in their own ideal.  She comes up with harebrained plans, the crew grumbles then follows along anyway, and things end up ok in the end.  Usually.

At the end of the last book the group learns that Emperor does indeed know of both the Emperor’s Edge (the name of Amaranthe’s group) and of the danger to himself.  In fact he wants to arrange his own kidnapping away from his handlers.  And thus begins ‘Conspiracy,’ in which the group trains for a train heist (bad pun).  As in the last two books one member of the group takes over as the secondary story, this time it is he of the bad attitude, wannabe mage and former street punk Akstyr.  Akstyr does some major soul searching and considers what kind of person he is looking to be, but thankfully doesn’t distract from the main story.

The book started out slower for me than previous outings; the early set up was missing some of the witty dialog that really carries the series.  The first third is also a much darker outing than we are accustomed too, something that doesn’t mesh with expectations and didn’t work as well for me.  Thankfully  once the heist is actually underway  the book snaps back to what I read the series for; snappy infighting and wacky hijinks!

Amaranthe is still enjoyable, Sicarius is still unbelievably glum (and forgiven for trespasses too easily), and Maldynado is still my favorite shameless pretty boy.  Yara is back from the last book and is paired with Maldynado for some of the best laughs in the book.  The Emperor has been seen before, but he really shows some personality here and he is a very convincing character.  Strong and sure at times as the leader of the land should be, hesitant and even scared at times as a young man with hell thrown at him would be.

The book ends on a major cliffhanger.  While the Akstyr plot line is given some closure, nothing else is.  In some ways this is a good thing, by meeting the Emperor this series is leaving the “wacky adventure of the month” serial it was in danger of becoming and plunging into an over arching plot line.  But this isn’t a minor cliffhanger we are left on, but rather a season finale type that makes me glad the next book is already out (actually the whole series is done, good for fans).

Another fun entry in the series, still something a recommend, but something about the first third just didn’t jive with me.  Still, once again it was a book I couldn’t put down and read in 2 days.

3 Stars

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Steampunk Review: ‘Deadly Games’ by Lindsay Buroker

Nathan’s Review:  (posted 24th April 2013)

Say one thing about the Emperor Edge series, it is highly consistent.  Three books in and I know exactly what to expect from each book at this point.  I know that I will be very entertained by enjoyable banter between entertaining characters.  I  know that main character Amaranthe Lokdon  will come up with the craziest, most implausible plan imaginable, her crew will go with it, it will fail, and quick thinking from her and her crew will save the day.  And to top it off, I know when it is over I will immediately go to Amazon and book mark the next book, then try to talk myself out of buying right away…It will be there later man, have some control!

This time around Lokdon discovers that athletes are disappearing from some Olympic-like event before it even starts.  Hey, our crew is in great shape!  Let’s enter Basilard into an event against people who have trained their whole life.  This way we have an insider AND a chance to speak to the Emperor at the end.  It is fool proof!  Following a patter in the series the plan falls apart, a couple teammates get kidnapped, and things spiral farther out of control.

I think even the characters are starting to realize they live in a slightly silly land, saying things like “you have a tendency to wander into the enemy camp to chat with the head villain.”  The magic is starting to get a bit powerful; it is getting harder to understand how the Empire is so powerful when it is willfully ignorant of such a powerful force.  And I really am not buying how Lokdon is feeding her people working as mercenaries with such high standards.

But those area all minor squabbles.  Fans of the series get more of what they want.  These books still move at lightning speed; walking the line very well by showing a lot of action without getting bogged down by repetitive details.  And the characters continue to.. not grow.. but do all the things that made them so endearing in the first place.  Maldynado alone makes the book a great buy, Sicarius shows a little personality behind his too perfect cool exterior, and Lokdon shows both charm and wit.  Even Akstyr shows some usefulness for the first time.

Still not books for everyone, but still just right for me when I want something light.  Three books down and I only want to read some more.

4 stars.  One more way these books have stayed consistent.

Pauline’s Review:

This is the third of the ‘Emperor’s Edge’ series, featuring former enforcer (cop) Amaranthe and her motley band of outlaws cum undercover agents – Sicarius the assassin, Maldynado the ladies’ man, Books the scholar, Akstyr the learner mage and Basilard the former slave wrestler. The steampunk setting is, as always, a nicely drawn backdrop and convenient plot device, so that one of the events in the games of the title is the clank race, where contestants compete on a mechanical (and rather unpleasant) obstacle course. As usual, there’s a mysterious series of events for the team to investigate in the hope of ingratiating themselves with the young emperor, and restoring themselves to respectability. There are also some ongoing backstories, and the author is brilliant at reminding the reader of past details at just the right moment, and without it ever feeling contrived. If only all authors were so skilled.

This is a million miles from the gritty realism end of fantasy. The characters are just the right side of caricature, and the plot – well, it really doesn’t matter. It rolls along nicely, a jolly adventure that is always one wobbly step away from disaster but never quite teeters over the brink. It’s predictable in the sense that the eventual outcome is never in any real doubt, but there’s a huge tangle of twists and turns along the way, most emanating from the fertile (if not always sensible) imagination of Amaranthe. You’ve got to love a character who never fails to have a hairbrained idea, however dire the circumstances. There are moments when it’s tempting to pause and think – how on earth did they get into this situation? And how can they possibly get out of it? There are times, too, when it all got a little bit over the top. The amount of punishment the characters manage to take, the number of armed and/or magic-wielding opponents they tackle simultaneously, and the sheer number of problems they encounter, all of it becomes just a little too cartoonish sometimes. And then there’s another brilliant bit of humour, and I just don’t care. In the end, it’s the characters who matter, and the funny, tetchy and even (occasionally) affectionate moments between them that make these books so wonderful. Even Sicarius the ice-cold assassin gets some bonding with Basilard, and… and… no, it can’t be… is that a romantic interlude with Amaranthe? Well, sort of, maybe.

For anyone looking for a light read, with plenty of action and huge dollops of witty banter between the characters, this fits the bill beautifully. These books are just so entertaining, it’s all too easy to think – just another chapter, and then another, and perhaps just one more… The book equivalent of a box of chocolates. Lovely stuff. Four stars. 

Books in the series
The Emperor’s Edge
Dark Currents
Deadly Games
Conspiracy
Blood and Betrayal 

Steampunk Review: ‘Dark Currents’ by Lindsay Buroker

Possible spoilers from ‘The Emperor’s Edge’.

Pauline’s Review (posted 1/17/13)

This is the second in the ‘Emperor’s Edge’ series of steam-punk fantasy adventures with Amaranthe the female cop and her unlikely bunch of sidekicks. They’re more at the entertaining romp end of the fantasy spectrum, and it probably doesn’t pay to look too closely at the precise details of the plot, a fairly ramshackle affair which would fail any logic test, so anyone looking for great insight into the human condition or gritty realism should probably move swiftly on. But light-hearted fun is fine by me, and this delivers by the (steam powered) truck load.

Amaranthe and her pals are still avoiding the long arm of the law after the misunderstandings of the first book, but trying meanwhile to curry favour with the emperor by carrying out helpful clean-up operations on the less reputable elements of the city. So even though they spend their time breaking and entering, snooping around and trying (not always successfully) not to kill anybody, they are really on the side of the law. Sort of.

The characters are rather a fun, if motley, collection. Amaranthe herself, once a rare female enforcer (cop) before she became a wanted woman, is a fine feisty heroine, not afraid to lead from the front, constantly getting into scrapes as a result but usually managing to get herself out of them again, by ingenuity rather than brute force. Rather charmingly, she believes that almost any situation, no matter how dire, can be resolved by talking things through. And she doesn’t scream. I like her. Sicarius the ice-cold trained-from-birth assassin is an unlikely comrade-in-arms, and he is too often used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, turning up in the nick of time to effect a rescue for one character or another. I don’t really see why bouncy, friendly Amaranthe has the hots for him, rippling muscles or no, but there you go. The rest of the bunch – the narcissistic Maldynado, the studious Books, the aspiring mage Akstyr and the outsider Basilard – are there to fill in the gaps and provide comic relief. Fans of Books will be pleased by his rather sweet little romance.

There’s a certain amount of world-building in this book, and we see more of the technological capabilities of the empire. There are a few snippets of information about the world’s history, too. There is also more magic, and I have to be honest here and say that this is not a fully-developed Sanderson-esque magic system. It’s more a matter of whatever would lead to a particularly dramatic moment turns out to be something the shaman/villain can do. But there’s no real attempt to create a believable in-depth secondary world here, and everything is sacrificed to a witty bit of banter between the sidekicks. Anyone who would be disgruntled to find a character saying “Yo, boss!” should probably not be reading this book.

The action increases, with our heroes getting into more and more difficulties, and the obstacles are almost insuperable, until… well, you can probably guess how it turns out. This is not the realistic gritty style of fantasy, but then it doesn’t pretend to be. It sets out to entertain and amuse, with a sprinkling of oh-my-goodness-how-will-they-escape dramatics, and it does it extremely well. An enjoyable, fun read. Four stars.

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Nathan’s Review (posted 3/6/13)

A quick recap of ‘The Emperor’s Edge;’ Amaranthe and her plucky cast of outlaws are actually nice people, doing everything they can to save the Emperor from some bad people.  Amaranthe sets up a complex and brilliant plan to trap the baddies, which fails miserably.  Despite this, a few lucky breaks and some quick thinking from several people in the crew works out in their favor, the Emperor is saved, and the entire crew find themselves to be outlaws still.  Tough break.

So an ex-cop, deadly assassin, male escort, wannabe magician, former pit fighter, and Books (guess what he does) are out of work, looking for good deeds to clear their name and get back in the Emperor’s good graces.  Turning down a job for an assassination gives them a lead into some nefarious doings anyway, and soon the group must leave town together to save the city from the latest and greatest troubles.  Glowing eyed wildlife, magic practitioners, angry fathers, and near-invincible imported predators are all out there to greet them.

Like the first novel this book moves at a lightning speed, I am amazed at how fast I have read the books in this series.  The group’s adventure relies less on a complex plan and more on quick decisions this time around, which helps alleviate some of the plot holes the first book had (though I am sure a reread would make me questions a few things).  Not a lot is added to the world other than proof there is life outside the main city and some signs that the Emperor they saved is trying to make the land a better place.

The greatest strength of this book comes from the character interactions, which can only be described as fun.  Constant bickering, light jokes, but brotherly (and sisterly in Amaranthe’s case) love is shared by almost all.  I am glad to be past the team set up stage, because the interactions are much more natural now that I have gotten to know the characters.   The author states in the epilog that her hope was to each book feature a different secondary characters; ‘Dark Currents’ features Books.  It worked, though he is certainly not the most intriguing character of the group (though he is probably the most realistic).  What made it work was the relationships he had; the love/hate with Maldynado and the romance he is struggling to keep up with.  I still am not a huge fan of the assassin character, but he doesn’t detract from the story for me.

The weaknesses of the book are easy to spot as well.  Many things happen not for logical reasons, but because the author needs them to happen in order to have a story.  If these were not so fun it may be a bigger deal, but the light hearted nature made me care a little less.  I was a bit disappointed that I learned the reasoning behind some of the villain’s acts, but never the true purpose of the master plan.  This is such a major thing that I have to give the author benefit of the doubt, and assume all will be explained later.  Oh, and I never quite understood the purpose of monsters that eat lady parts.  Just a bit weird. 

The Emperor’s Edge series has so far been a blast to read; Engaging and fun characters, quick paced adventures, and it appears that the beginning of an actual story arc building.  While they are not as strong as Chris Wooding’s ‘Kitty Jay’ Series, I have the feeling a lot of fans of Wooding would really enjoy Buroker’s books.

4 Stars

Books in the series
The Emperor’s Edge
Dark Currents
Deadly Games
Conspiracy
Blood and Betrayal 

Steampunk Review: ‘The Emperor’s Edge’ by Lindsay Buroker

Pauline’s Review:

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]

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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.

4 stars.

Books in the series
The Emperor’s Edge
Dark Currents
Deadly Games
Conspiracy
Blood and Betrayal 

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