Fantasy Review Barn
This is the fourth in the Emperor’s Edge steampunk series, and everyone should know the drill by now: former enforcer Amaranthe Lokdon leads her team in a madcap escapade that results in an unfeasibly large number of explosions, shooting incidents, highspeed chases and crazy machinery encounters, but miraculously all ends well. Or does it? Be warned, this ends with a serious cliffhanger.
The setting is heavy-duty steampunk, with trains and airships and an array of bizarre machinery. I have to be honest, there were times when the machines seemed to be designed for no other purpose than to generate a dramatic how-will-they-survive moment. There’s an early scene where Amaranthe and cold assassin Sicarius are trapped in a cellar being chased by robotic devices capable of blowing chunks out of the walls and demolishing all the equipment down there. Since that includes large amounts of gunpowder - well, why would you do that? I had a bit of a Galaxy Quest moment, reading that chapter; it reminded me of the chompers: “What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway. No, I mean we shouldn't have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here?”
This is the sort of book that requires the logical part of the reader’s brain to be switched off for the duration. No, some of it makes no logical sense, but it’s fun and exciting so who the hell cares?
The nice thing about this series is that is blends steampunk with magic (which rather nicely is known as the Science here). The combination is quite awesome, and leads to some interesting approaches to dealing with the vast number of obstacles the team have to contend with. There are also hints of something (still undefined) in the distant past, some kind of even more advanced technology than steam, which is totally cool. I love these sudden swerves in the world-building; just when you think you've got it straight in your head, along comes a whole new line of development, which was even foreshadowed from the start (for those who paid attention, which I obviously didn't).
The plot is to kidnap the emperor from a moving train filled with soldiers, which if you thought about it for even a second would strike anyone as probably not the sanest thing to do. But - logical brain switched off, right? Besides, the plot is just an excuse for some dramatic highjinks on the train, involving guns and crossbows and smokebombs and who knows what else, not to mention clambering from carriage to carriage, along the roof and even under the train. Plausible? Not really, but that's not the point.
The real joy of these books lies with the characters. Besides Amaranthe and Sicarius, slowly inching towards a romantic relationship (actually not even inching, this is sixteenth of an inch stuff), there’s Maldynado the delightfully self-obsessed nobleman, Basilard the mute former pit fighter, Books the academic, and Akstyr the magic-worker. This time we also get Yara, the gruffly upright enforcer, and Sespian the young emperor too, which livens up the mix. All of them have their own distinct personalities and industrial-strength back-stories as well, so they're all believably well-rounded characters. The charm is in the banter between them and the peculiarly daft way they go about things. There's enough laugh-out-loud humour here to lighten even the tensest moments.
The ending, sadly, is a great big cliff-hanger of a moment. Some of the threads specific to this book are resolved but our heroes are plunged into a major crisis. I'm not a big fan of this trick, but sometimes an author has to follow where the plot leads, and this is, after all, the fourth in the series, so anyone still reading is probably in it for the long haul. Luckily for me, the next book is already out (actually the series has now wrapped up, so I'm way behind), so - onward and upward. Four stars.