I'm not at all sure what to make of this book. On the one hand, it has a lot of elements that I normally find appealing: a post-apocalyptic setting, a kickass female protagonist, characters with a lot of history, an unpredictable world. But somehow, it didn't grab me, and I've been puzzling over why. There's nothing terrible about it, nothing that jumps out at me - it's well plotted, the characters have depth, the world is full of surprises (and I love to be surprised!), but for some odd reason it didn't resonate with me. Just a mood thing, I suppose.
One problem is that I often found it difficult to visualise the settings. Sometimes I would have to reread a section because I'd misunderstood where things were or what was going on. I'm still not very clear whether the setting is meant to be some real-world place, or if it's a created world. I kept seeing it in my mind as the southwestern US, but I could be completely wrong about that. Either way, the book failed to provide me with as much detail about the backdrop as I wanted, but another reader likely wouldn't find it a problem.
However, the world is filled with a whole heap of weirdness. The author has a stunning imagination to create so many odd beasties and devices and situations. There was almost too much creativity (and that's not a criticism that's often levelled at a fantasy work, let's be honest). But perhaps less of the bizarre and a bit more of the familiar would have helped me get into it. In some ways, the deluge of originality reminded me of my one attempt at a China Mièville book. It's not that I dislike weirdness, but I'm not too keen on the absolutely anything goes end of the spectrum.
The plot - well, what plot? Malja (the kickass female, who has a wicked curved blade called Viper) and her mute magician sidekick, Tommy, amble round the countryside trying to find information about two men who mistreated Malja, so that she can take her revenge. And that's about it. Along the way, they have some adventures, make some new friends, Malja (and Viper) kill a lot of people and mutant beasties, while she tries to prevent Tommy from killing anyone because killing is a Very Bad Thing. Now, it's not that any of this is uninteresting, but it's a fairly delicate thread on which to hang an entire book, and it was all a bit episodic. It just felt like a series of setpiece battles, interspersed with odd moments of introspection round the campfire, where Malja muses on the fact that killing is a Very Bad Thing. Sometimes the musings jumped about rather abruptly - Malja's childhood with the bad guys, her childhood with the good guy, her meeting with Tommy, and a few other odd events in her past - and it wasn't always easy to keep up.
Malja herself is a fairly standard issue Warrior Babe (tm), basically a killing machine, and somehow the odd doubts she feels don't quite work to make her a fully rounded character, at least not for me, although I did enjoy finding out where she came from, that was a fun reveal. The author has put a lot of effort into developing Malja - not just her history, but her feelings for Tommy and her interactions with the other characters, and if it didn't totally convince me, that's partly a side effect of her Warrior Babe role. The (almost) invincible warrior, whether male or female, is not one I find particularly compelling. Tommy - now, Tommy's interesting, but he would be much more interesting if we could either hear him speak or get a viewpoint from inside his head, but failing that he's no more than a blank.
The other characters are actually rather well-drawn, although in some cases it takes nearly the whole book to get to the point where we really understand them. This is partly because they pop in and out of the plot quite a bit, and partly also because most of them start off as bad guys, and it takes a while to shift loyalties and see them as good guys (that is, those who are on Malja's side). But the author deals with that, and their changing status is reflected in Malja's attitude to them - it takes a long time for her to trust them.
The magic system is rather nice - each spell is worked by a single tattoo on the magician's body, and they prepare the spell by focusing on the tattoo. So spells take time to be generated, and they also drain the body of energy, making the magician not just tired but also hungry. Now this is all quite neat. What I disliked is that there seem to be virtually no limits to the sort of spells that can be created. Energy fields, heat and light, levitation, physical changes to the body, creating artifacts, even huge buildings - all of this and much more can be done, and it has the inevitable result that in a sticky moment, a new spell will turn up to create a problem for our heroes or to rescue them. This is just too close to deus ex machina to be comfortable.
One aspect of magic that was quite cool was the association with music. The author is obviously a blues fan, because there's a troop of blues musicians who have a very clever and original role in the story. I also liked the implications of the 'frames' that play a pivotal role in the plot (I won't say any more, because I don't want to spoil the surprise). It does mean that in future books the author has a huge amount of scope to take the story wherever he wants to go.
The final quarter or so of the book builds to an action-packed climax. Actually, there's a bundle of action all the way through (Malja's a Warrior Babe, after all), making the whole book seem like a loosely connected series of escalating battles, separated by those introspective moments round the campfire. For those who enjoy lots of bloody fights against increasingly difficult opponents, this book will suit you very well. I found myself wondering from time to time just why they were all doing this (revenge? a flimsy excuse for putting your life on the line quite so many times). It was also rather convenient that nobody actually seemed to want to kill Malja. After a humungous battle, which our heroes survive by the skin of their teeth, the bad guys invite them into their headquarters and sit down to explain things. And this happened repeatedly. Either they want Malja dead (in which case fight to kill and don't talk about it) or else they don't (in which case, call off the aggressive minions). But maybe I'm looking too hard for a logical plot in this kind of book.
Now if this sounds quite negative, this is just how it took me. Maybe on a different day, under different circumstances, I'd have enjoyed it more. I had to keep stopping and starting, which was disruptive; on a long journey, where I could have got really into it, it would have worked better for me. On the plus side, it's well written, with just a few minor typos, it has good pacing and plenty of action, as well as an imaginative range of beasties, which added a degree of unpredictability to every encounter. The use of magic, both via tattoo or by music, is ingenious, and I like the idea that the misuse of magic caused the downfall of civilisation, so that magicians are now both feared and loathed (and often kept in slavery). The role of magic to provide power (in batteries, for instance) is a neat idea. The encounters with the remnants of civilisation were very cool. And I really like the implication that modern civilisation before the Devastation was driven by very powerful magic (like electricity, presumably). So although it didn't entirely work for me, I still enjoyed it. Three stars.