RogerBW's Blog

Firebrand, Ankaret Wells 06 September 2014

Self-published industrial fantasy romance. The relict of a bishop inherits her mother's great airship, and tries to avoid becoming the mistress of the Emperor.

This isn't the pseudonymous author's first novel, but it feels like one. There's lots of stuff here: fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, airships, spies, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… it all tumbles over itself a bit, but there's a raw enthusiasm for the world and the characters that can't help coming through, and that carried me at least over any minor infelicities of structure.

As an occasional romance reader I despise some of the easy tricks of the genre that pad out a book, for example the Big Misunderstanding: if She could so readily believe a bad thing about Him without even asking him about it (or vice versa), what on earth are they doing falling in love? I'm glad to say that this book is free of those: our hero and heroine start falling in love at their first meeting, and their future relationship is never more than slightly in doubt thereafter. This romance is built on mutual respect, trust, and above all honesty. (That this is apparently enough to make it a "feminist romance", in the Tiptree long-list for 2012, rather damns the rest of the genre.)

The book is explicitly an homage to the Brontës' juvenilia concerning Angria, but there's a pleasing lack of teeth-gnashing and other such unimpressive melodrama. The world-building is interesting, and Wells seems to be an SF/fantasy fan who's moved into romance rather than the other way round (people who started as romance fans rarely seem to grasp the importance of a consistent world if it's not our own). There are no long lectures, and plenty of things are left unexplored, which would be unsatisfying if I were trying to write the game of this world but for a stand-alone novel seems quite reasonable. Magic is mostly kept off-stage, lifting the airships (which may explain why they never seem to need to be re-gassed, and indeed why it makes sense to mount guns aboard them and use them in war); its capabilities seem arbitrary, but it's pretty rare.

We're thrown in at the deep end as our heroine attends the reading of her mother's will: she evidently has history with several of the other characters, but one can quickly pick up the necessary back-story. (Though one does rather wonder why the bishop married her in the first place.) The plot twists in ways not immediately predictable, and every few pages there are lovely lines, such as our heroine to her sister:

"I can tell by the way you're sitting that you've got a cutlass shoved through the back of the waistband."

"That has nothing to do with the matter."

"I suppose you're going to tell me it's a mourning cutlass."

"It's got a black enamel hilt, what more do you want?"

or a dry comment while touring a province:

Apparently when the people of Coranza aren't engaged in planting and picking grapes, they're weaving plaid. If someone actually came up with a plaid wine, Coranza would be producing the headache-inducing stuff by the vat.

I complain about books where everyone comes out with clever lines at the right moment, as if they were in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or modern Doctor Who, but here the heroine won me over. And, yes, our heroine is not an ingenue; she's been married and widowed twice, she has five horrible stepdaughters from the second marriage, and the wild enthusiasms of the young tire her rather than being her main preoccupation. This is something quite usual in romances these days, but still rare in fantasy and science fiction, and I applaud it thoroughly. The narrator's voice is one of the high points.

Not a perfect book by any means, but definitely a good book, which is more than I can say for some of my recent reading from better-known authors.

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