Some books draw you in with some dramatic piece of action right at the start; a battle, perhaps, or something intriguing and unexplained. Some start off slow and gentle, and build up to the action later. This one starts with the characters, with Duchess and Lysander, a relationship, a little bit of history and yes, a bit of a mystery, too. And within a chapter, it's tugging at me, making me care about these people. Some books take their full length to do that, and some (quite a few actually) never do it, but these two authors have a sure touch for creating the emotional resonance that I look for in a book.
The heart of this book is Duchess, the sixteen year old orphan from a noble family, who was brought up in anonymity by a baker and has now been turfed out to make her way on the streets. This all sounds fairly ho-hum, but it's given a fresh and original twist here, and the mystery of what really happened to Duchess and her family underpins the whole book. Then there is Lysander, her sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend, who is, to be honest, more interesting than she is. Or maybe I'm just naturally drawn to roguish, amusing, charming men rather than to sixteen year old girls, who knows. But their relationship is lovely, most unusual, and beautifully revealed.
The world-building is, in one sense, limited, because all the action takes place within the city of Rodaas. However, the city is well described, with all its different districts, each with a very distinct feel. I'm not sure I find it totally credible that they would stay so separate (in real life they would blur at the edges and blend together, I would think), but I suppose it all happens by imperial edict. Still, it worked very well to give the city a believable feel, and the very nice map helped. I also liked the atmospheric fogs that roll in from the sea at regular intervals - that's a very evocative idea, which works well to give the place an other-worldly quality, mysterious and slightly creepy.
In some ways this is a conventional setting for a fantasy novel. There's an Empress and the nobility, where men rule the roost and women do what they're told; there are merchants and craftsmen and traders and guilds, and all the usual paraphernalia; and at the bottom of the heap are the thieves and street urchins and beggars. There is law and order (of a sort) but also corruption and a degree of brutality. And there are prostitutes (male and female) who tread an uneasy path between the classes, being low in the social standing themselves but taking their clientèle from the upper ranks. There's religion, too, three main ones, recognised by the empire, and numerous minor or unusual ones, and again there are intriguing but well delineated differences between them. Magic? Possibly, but it's not very clear.
Then there's the plot. The premise is that Duchess has been thrown out of the bakery (for unknown reasons) but has been given a special coin which might allow her to join one of the elite gangs of the city, the Greys. To do this she has to undertake an initiation test. Now, there's a long tradition in the same vein: the hero (or heroine, in this case) is called upon to undertake a seemingly impossible task, and this has certain advantages. It drives the plot, for one thing, and it ramps up the tension, by setting up the possibility that if she fails, she will die (or worse). I'm not a big fan of this kind of plot device. For one thing, it always seems so much more sensible to just say no, and settle for a nice respectable job, or at least guaranteed survival. And of course no one really believes she's going to fail. So it's all a bit artificial. But never mind.
Once the Impossible Task (tm) gets under way, there are a few contrivances to allow Duchess to get to where she needs to be, and to case the joint, as it were, and this part is all a bit predictable. But once things start moving, the story hits the turbo button and becomes a terrific page turner, and not predictable at all. In fact, there's a moment in the middle of the action where Duchess has to make a difficult decision. I expected the authors to opt for cheap sentimentality here and take the easy route, but no, not at all, and they faced up to the consequences too. This was a very nice piece of writing. Details: I thought she would race to Lysander's rescue, for sure, when he was captured by the Brutes, and was pleasantly surprised when she turned away and left him to his fate. In a grittier book, he would have died or been maimed as a result, but this is not a gritty book and fate intervened to rescue him more or less unscathed. But it did damage their relationship, as it should (although this gets slurred over a bit later, sadly). It did cross my mind, however, that if the Brutes had dragged Lysander off to the underground chamber to be tortured, as they intended, they would have been there just as Duchess needed to make her escape that way. Which would have been interesting.
The ending was neatly done, even if very slightly predictable (well, even I guessed bits of it), and it did seem sometimes as if things just worked out a little too conveniently, although partly that was just the complications of the various factions. I'm not sure that I've got them all clear in my head, even now (it was complicated), but even so I liked the way it all felt like a whole array of multi-layered games going on simultaneously, with only odd moves becoming visible here and there. To say that everyone's motives were questionable would be an understatement. But the authors managed to create a satisfying resolution for this book, while also laying the foundations for future books, not always easy to do.
I have a few minor quibbles: I would have liked to see something of the world outside Rodaas, for example. The city felt just slightly claustrophobic. And while I don't normally comment on cover images, this one, while it nicely depicts Duchess herself, is a bit too much the conventional fantasy-character-in-a-hood. I would have liked to see Lysander on there too (but maybe that's just me!), and also something of fog-bound Rodaas as well. Also, although the authors have attempted to create something of a past for Rodaas, the few snippets of events and stories we get don't really give the impression of a fully realised history.
On the plus side, the writing is excellent, drawing out the atmosphere of Rodaas and creating fully rounded characters. There are virtually no typos or clunky moments. I particularly liked the subtleties of the exchanges with Minette and Uncle Cornelius, with all their double meanings and innuendo, where the reader is given just enough information to work out what is really being said without being spoonfed. Duchess is a sympathetic main character right from the start, and did I mention that I really like Lysander? I think I may have... A really enjoyable read. Four stars.