Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: Firebrand

Firebrand by Ankaret Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an "also-bought" on Amazon from the book I read immediately before it, [b:The Steerswoman|793297|The Steerswoman (The Steerswoman, #1)|Rosemary Kirstein||6398950].

I've been known to complain before about how steampunk novels typically take a great idea and execute it poorly. This one, in a refreshing change, takes a great idea (drawn from the fantasy world that Charlotte Bronte created as a child, which reflects more cultivation and knowledge of the 19th century than most steampunk authors show) and executes it fairly well, though very far from flawlessly.

The wonderful and wonder-filled world is more or less a background to the story, and, to be honest, the plot is not great and somewhat pitted with holes. The great strength is the main character and narrator, but even she has her flaws - not "character flaws" that appear in the book, but flaws considered as a literary character and potential protagonist. She's an intelligent and very witty woman, but she doesn't seem to apply that intelligence to anything, or have any useful skills or areas of knowledge - or even any useless ones. (I suppose that being quite good at sex is a useful skill, in context.) She doesn't have a really clearly articulated goal, nor does she pursue clear goals against opposition; she more or less drifts about reacting to events a lot of the time, and often reacting to them not very effectively.

The most decisive thing she does (small spoiler for an early event) is propose marriage to the sole remaining independent duke, apparently in order to escape the attentions of the emperor, but as I say, it's not clearly articulated what her plan is, or even if she has one. The duke, who has remained faithful to the memory of his late wife for years, and the main character, who has had two unsatisfactory marriages and a few unsatisfactory liaisons, then fall in instalove. This is the biggest unlikeliness in the plot, right up to the point where the big threat just kind of collapses at the end. It seems that the people of the duchy, who venerate the late duchess, become, quietly and in the background, mild converts to the cult of the new would-be duchess, for no really clear reason. But then, she's the kind of character that everyone loves (except people who are obviously nasty, like her stepdaughters), for no really clear reason.

There's some back-and-forth for the rest of the book in which it seems like possibly they might not get married for one reason or another, but I was never convinced by any of it, and it wasn't strong enough to drive a plot. Nor were the various, mostly half-hearted attempts to kidnap or assassinate her, which never seemed to result in her being assigned a military guard or taking any kind of precautions.

There's not quite one editing error per chapter, on average, which isn't a bad run rate (though they include a missing apostrophe from "children's" and "ten years' time" and a misplaced one in "gentlemen's" and "stepdaughters'" - I'm giving the correct versions here). Some of them are places where the present tense (which the book is narrated in) slips momentarily into past, or where there's a word missing from a sentence, or repeated.

So why four stars? It sounds like a bit of a mess. Well, it is, kind of, but the banter and the voice of the main character are very funny, and I always award a humour bonus to books that make me laugh. Listen to this: "There are enough potted palms to choke a camel. Somewhere a few rooms away a small orchestra are diligently at work. One of them may actually be choking a camel, though if so it's a soprano one." Or this: "I don't feel like myself, but whoever I am seems to be coping better with what's just happened than I would."

I was entertained, despite the lack of protagonism or a strong sense of plot (two things which are intertwined), and being entertained is important. I don't know if I'll read another book by this author, but I have another sample on my Kindle, so I'll give it a try and see what it's like, and if it shows signs of not having the same issues I'll buy it.

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