Fantasy Review Barn
This is book 5 is the Emperor's Edge series, and this review is going to be full of spoilers for the first four books of the series. If you don't want to know secrets, or the outcome of the cliffhanger ending of book 4, look away now.
The end of book 4 left our heroes in a bit of a pickle. Their dirigible was shot down by their enemies, leaving Amaranthe to be captured by the evil Major Pike, while the survival of the rest of the group was in doubt. Surprise! They made it more or less unscathed, and since Sicarius sets off after Amaranthe, that leaves Maldynado to take charge of the group, following the plan of rescued boy emperor Sespian. Meanwhile, back in the capital, Sespian has been declared dead and evil conspiracists Forge are making their move for world domination.
The series has always taken a lighthearted tone, with every madcap adventure ending with a lot of wrecked machinery, a heap of accidentally dead enemies, a few scratches on the gang and a metric tonne of entertaining banter along the way. Book 4 became slightly more serious, as Sicarius went on a cold assassin killing spree, but nothing much was made of it apart from a bit of internal angst by Amaranthe. Book 5 shifts into a different gear altogether, as Amaranthe is subjected to sustained torture at the hands of Major Pike.
I found this section uncomfortable to read, and not because of the torture itself (I've read much worse). I have no problem with a story that delves into difficult territory, but I found the treatment of it here skirted round the issues raised. Amaranthe is treated with appalling brutality (which I won't describe here), yet she never cracks under the pressure, and is still able to joke. Some magical salve is conveniently used to heal her injuries between sessions. She is never raped, even though Major Pike, we're told, is famous for it. When she eventually escapes, she manages to evade capture despite her physical condition (she herself doubts she could have survived much longer), and is soon sufficiently recovered to be quite happy to enter a building alone to meet with an unknown male. The only long-term effect of her experience is to make her more likely to jump with surprise when Sicarius sneaks up on her. Oh, and she doesn't want to talk about it. Obviously not every book needs to be grimdark, and I can see how it might have been necessary, plotwise, to underline Sicarius's childhood experiences, but to my mind torture is automatically a grimdark subject and shouldn't be treated as just another violent experience, like being bopped on the head or taking a few cuts and bruises. The author does make some attempt to describe Amaranthe’s suffering, but there’s a fine line to walk: too serious a tone clashes with the light-hearted nature of the books, but too flippant would be wrong too. To my mind, it would have been better to leave the torture out altogether.
The second major problem is Maldynado. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Maldynado. He's probably my favourite character (after Sicarius; what is it with ice-cold assassins anyway that makes them so appealing?), and I'd vote for his statue in a heartbeat. But he's essentially a shallow character, the comic relief who can always be relied upon for an entirely inappropriate comment of sexual innuendo or boasting about his triumphs in the bedroom, usually while beating up random villains with practised ease. Here he's the other point of view character (apart from Amaranthe), and since she's tied up - hmm, unfortunate phrasing there - being tortured, which we see only briefly at intervals, it means that dear old no-brain Mal is carrying the first half of the book virtually single-handed. Frankly, he's not a strong enough character for that. There's a certain amount of backstory to be revealed, but it's not wildly interesting and most of what we get is Mal whining internally about being misunderstood. Honestly, much as I like him, there's only so much of that I can take.
If this all sounds negative - actually, it is negative. I just didn't enjoy the book as much as previous ones in the series. There's an increasing reliance on sophisticated technology for the hero-chomping machinery, too, which is too close to deus-ex-machina for my taste. Not enough to have our heroes trapped underground beneath a lake surrounded by armed villains? Let's have a few mysterious black boxes lying around which can remain inert to start with but will come to life and start shooting at everything at the most difficult moment. Blech. However, there is one element which is worth the price of admission all by itself. Sicarius chooses to leaves Sespian to the rest of the gang in order to rescue Amaranthe, and regular readers know exactly what a difficult decision that was for him. When they do eventually meet up again, there are some truly wonderful moments. Sicarius is never going to fall on Amaranthe's neck weeping, but the tiny (and not so tiny) ways in which he opens himself up to her and makes himself totally vulnerable are brilliantly written. Easily the best thing in the series so far.
The ending is the usual machinery-and-scenery-demolishing mayhem, where hordes of bad guys may (or may not) die but our heroes improbably emerge injured but still intact. There's a really cheesy moment right at the end, one of those dramatic reveals that's abruptly cut off before anything crucial actually is revealed, and some truly clunky exposition to explain the villains' motives, but generally speaking things come to the usual end, with everything more or less as before (a few plot developments but no actual character progression, as such, beyond that infinitesmal lightening of attitude by Sicarius). I already have the rest of the series, so I'm committed for the long haul, but I have to be honest and say that this book was a disappointment. Three stars.