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.