This is billed as a steampunk fantasy, but don’t be fooled. The steampunk elements are negligible. In reality, this is a romance with a fantasy background. Since the heroine is seventeen and there’s a bit of a love triangle, I suppose it’s YA, too. The book has perhaps the most cliché-riddled opening I've ever encountered. The main character is an orphan with mysterious powers. She makes a living on the streets as a pick-pocket [*], disguised as a boy. Despite the disguise, twice during the first couple of chapters she suffers violent attempted rapes. She is betrayed by a former friend, arrested for a murder she didn't commit, and condemned to death. But she escapes and manages to run away. It's all pretty familiar stuff. It just needs a prophecy, a magic sword and a quest to complete the set (maybe that comes later...). And yet, despite the predictability, I kept reading, which is, I suppose, a testament of sorts to the author's writing ability, if not her originality.
[*] Why oh why do orphaned children always end up on the streets in fantasyland, their only option thievery or prostitution? Did their parents have no friends who might help them out? Is the town so lawless that orphans are simply abandoned to their fate? Is there really no honest work to be had?
The biggest interest for me is the main character's magical ability. Llew has the power to heal herself when injured, but only by drawing the life force from some other living thing - human, animal or plant. This is such an intriguing power that I really want to know more about it. Then there's Braph, a man with a mysterious background who is clearly searching for Llew, for reasons unknown. (Horrible thought: maybe she's the secret heir to the kingdom? No, surely not.) Less intriguing by far is the romantic interest. We know he's the romantic interest from the start because Llew comments on his nice ass, and mentions how handsome he is. Needless to say, he dislikes her on sight.
The plot isn’t much to write home about, but it’s serviceable. Llew picks up with a group heading north to the only port on a long, thin island-continent (really? no other suitable place?). There are encounters with highwaymen, Braph the Mysterious and the law, since Llew is still wanted for murder, and now witchcraft, since she used her magic to escape hanging. This is all good fun, and there’s the expected moment where Llew’s less-than-convincing boy disguise fails, and her new friends pop her in a frock for dinner. Cue much ogling from the men. There are some logic fails: a day when they appeared to have lunch twice, a bedroom scene segues to the garden and back again, and a time on a boat when Llew needed a living being to draw energy from, and everyone forgot about the horses in the hold. But still, things rattle along nicely, with one misadventure after another.
In a shock twist (not), the group includes the romantic interest, Jonas, who despite being a mean, cynical killing machine, immediately gets the hots for our heroine. He also shows his sensitive side, bringing her cloths when her period starts, giving her cute little hugs when she’s down and cuddling in bed in a heroically non-libidinous way at night. I began to wonder when they would start doing each other’s hair. But this does highlight the biggest problem I had with this book - the characters don’t behave in believable ways. When Jonas and Llew sneak out at night to meet up with Braph, a man known to be hostile and with probably evil intentions, how do they pass the time while they wait for him to show up? Sharpening their knives, perhaps? Discussing tactics? Hiding so they have the element of surprise? No, they lie down in plain view and get all hot and steamy. And when a child is accidentally killed, everyone acts like it’s the greatest tragedy ever, and Jonas is so distraught he gets wildly drunk. This is the man who says ‘I’ve killed... dozens, hundreds.’ Then when Braph does eventually turn up, no one recognises him or gets even remotely alarmed. There are any number of oddities like this.
I found this a very frustrating read. On the one hand, there's some wonderful magic, solid world-building and an interesting steampunkish vaguely western feel to it. The author's writing style is neat and unobtrusive, and the plot moves along at a fair canter. On the other hand, the romantic element pops up at the most inopportune moments, and the characters just don't behave rationally. There are also aspects that aren't explained well (or perhaps I just failed to get it, I don't know; I never did work out quite who Emylia was - friend, relative or paid chaperone?), so there are a number of wait-did-we-know-that? moments along the way. Better editing would have smoothed out some inconsistencies and odd hiccups, filled in the strangely sketchy minor characters and produced a better flow. But despite all the issues, I kept reading, sneaking a chapter here and there when I was supposed to be doing something else, until the ending lost me. Sadly, the last few chapters are littered with unlikely events, coindidences and outright deus ex machina. For those who can enjoy the romance, the interesting setting and a terrific magic system, and don’t mind the implausibilities, this would be a great read, and it’s clear the author can write, but for me it just didn’t work. Two stars.