Received via Member Giveaway on LibraryThing
I was attracted to this book because the blurb said it was inspired in part by Kushiel's Dart, which is hands down one of my favorite books, and Game of Thrones, which I've been really excited to read long before the TV show was even dreamt up. I love hard fantasy, I love court intrigue and huge pitched battles and sex and death and everything in between. I was really excited about this book.
Now, I'll grant that inspiration can take a lot of forms, and that inspired works might not be the same as the source of the inspiration, but I was really, really hoping better for this book.
First, the good:
The plot was quite engaging, when it came around. What's going on with Kydonia? Why's everything going on? What's the ambassadorial group doing outside of their country (and apparently unexpected)? Sentences were kept short and sweet, for the most part, so this was a quick read. The author clearly pulls on his own experience in the armed forces for the sections dealing with the army in the book, which gives it an air of authenticity, even if the sections on this particular army seem to be stuck in the wrong era.
Then, the bad (and, unfortunately, the bulk of the review):
Okay, so, I'm under the impression that hard fantasy generally takes place in a quasi-Medieval Europe setting, MAYBE going as far forward in time as the Renaissance, and generally not back into antiquity, with a lot of feudal aspects and virtually no industrial aspects (which is generally the realm of steampunk). But there was a weird combination of medieval aspects and post-Renaissance (almost Industrial Age) aspects in this setting that I found particularly jarring—like epaulets and medals on the soldiers, as well as regiments with names and numbers and, hell, histories. Guns (or, excuse me, firelances) weren't being dreamt up in medieval times, and they were starting to take hold maybe late Renaissance. (Maybe.)
But this time-period weirdness I'm willing to attribute to personal preference—it's certainly reasonable to have a warped time frame in a work of fiction, and it's just something to get used to. Fine.
Another annoyance was the number of typos in the book—which, since this is "published" and not an advance copy, should be nonexistent. "Baulk[-ing, -ed]" for "balk[-ing, -ed]" should be caught, so should misplaced commas (comma splices and other unnecessary commas). On top of the commas, m-dashes were used way too much; there are other forms of punctuation to set off thoughts and asides, and they make the m-dash aside SO much stronger (as it should be). I'm not familiar enough with Smashwords to know whether this is a venue for self-published or indie-publisher-published ebooks, but regardless, it doesn't reflect well on the industry or on the book itself to have a sloppy copyediting job done. (I say, "I'm reading a self-published ebook!" and others laugh at me and say, "OH GOD WHY DO YOU SUBMIT YOURSELF TO THAT TORTURE?" because these books tend to not be of good quality, you see.)
Yet another annoyance was the anachronistic speech in the dialogues (both inner monologue and outer dialogue), and some of the names fell prey to this as well. I have friends' parents who are named "Cheryl", so I don't expect this to be coming up as a viable name in a hard fantasy book. And all of these "fuck"s—fuck, fucking, fuck you, fuck off—there are other words. You are an author. USE NEW WORDS. (Incidentally, another thing that an editor will catch.)
Annoyance: Useless sex scenes. I get that this novel was inspired by Kushiel's Dart, where a key plot point is all of the sex-having, but here, not so much. The sex scenes in this book were positively laughable. I think all together they probably constitute a solid hour of sex for actual people, and they really didn't propel the plot any more than saying something like, "...and then they had sex. NEXT CHAPTER." There is no point to them. They're not especially well written—fortunately, they're not BADLY written, either—and I certainly wouldn't have walked around with a "tent in [my] trousers" if I had just read one.
Annoyance: Racial stereotyping. Oh, yes, of course the gypsies are going to be the mystics and the petty thieves. Of course they're going to be the ones wandering away with the main character's purse, even though he later walks through a really poor section of the city and also at various times walks by a lot of people who'd be quite willing to steal from him—but because they're not gypsies, oh no, they certainly don't steal from the prince. Nope.
More than an annoyance is that there were times where the motivation or the reasoning behind various happenings is missing, or not well explained. The main character is someone entirely reprehensible that I would wish a slow and painful death on, but once he joins up with the army he becomes this hardworking, supportive good guy—what change could have possibly happened in the week at MOST that he had been there to evoke a full personality change? How does he know the history of the regiment he joins well enough to inspire not only the regiment but commanders of other regiments—when at the time of his joining, he barely seemed to know what a regiment was? (This tries to be swept under the rug with the old "oh my royal tutor" trick, but that really doesn't fly here.) Why doesn't he follow up on his feelings toward Kaelyn? Why in the world does he develop feelings for Jacqueline? Why does he try to have both when he's in mental agony trying to have both? This should be clear to the reader—they should be able to understand why everything is happening the way it is, regardless of whether they're thinking critically about the book, or whether they're reading it for fun on the beach or mindlessly before bed (I have done all three with this novel, for what it's worth, and it doesn't get any clearer).
One of the worst things, though, is that I don't think the amount of research done for this book was anywhere near sufficient. Any good fantasy writer worth their salt will have done enough research to know that generally, Crown Princes are not going to be anonymous except to people living very far away indeed, and they will not be attended by maids (much less a single maid) but by a manservant. They will not dress themselves; that's part of the manservants' job. Military did not have uniforms in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, and most of them didn't even have general-issue uniforms until well into the 1800's. They did not award medals for service, unless it was someone high-born who did the serving. A brief foray into tarot card history will show that tarot cards are not shuffled like ordinary playing cards (because they need to be treated with more respect, like any other tool of divination—it's not like you're going to be playing catch with your crystal ball). A quick foray into the "Cyrillic alphabet" Wikipedia page (which you can get linked to from the "Russian" page) will tell you that as the title is written on the cover, it should be pronounced "Koo-doh-ee-a", rather than what I assume the pronunciation should be ("Kai-do-nee-ya", or maybe "Kee-do-nee-ya"). Courtesans are not prostitutes, but they are much more respectable. Otherwise they wouldn't be included in the royal court. And the king, if he takes a consort in addition to his wife, would not be nearly so open about it as the king in this novel is, because it's a slight toward his wife. Women would also not be sworn around without apology—they were, after all, considered weak and in need of protection, and swearing is still considered vulgar in the Middle Ages. High-born and noblewomen would CERTAINLY not be sworn around without apology. There should not be someone who has a "Cockney accent" when neither the particular region of London nor England itself exists. And highland pipes are more commonly known as bagpipes (why a soldier is carrying them on many-miles-long marches for his own entertainment is beyond me), named for the Scottish highlands they came from—so why not A) specify where these highlands are (since there's also a character who speaks with a highlands accent), B) call them bagpipes, or C) name them something else altogether?
The reason why this is so awful is because these are easy facts to find—for the most part they're on Wikipedia. You can Google them. The average person might not know them, but when you're an author and typing away at four in the morning at your eighteenth draft, you can certainly go to Wikipedia to fact check. And this is also something a knowledgeable editor should fact check and catch beforehand; and when you're having someone edit your book, they should be at least as knowledgeable about the book as the author is, as well as able to bring in other outside information. This too speaks of a sloppy job.
The other "worst thing" is the portrayal of women in this novel. There aren't strong women. There aren't positive women. There are, in fact, two types of women in this novel—there are the courtesans, who are always conniving bitches solely out for their own gain, and there are the noblewomen, who are simpering, delicate flowers. All women want sex, particularly if it's with the reprehensible Crown Prince, even if he'd just completely insulted them a little bit ago and explained (in his head) how he was just incapable of apologizing and/or was otherwise not responsible for his own actions. And all women can be mollified with money and/or gifts. At least the men in this novel are sort of multifaceted (well, they have two facets, anyway), but the women REALLY don't change. Character development is a weakness in this novel, but the weakness that will drive a particular gender away from this novel (and potentially an author) is how terribly the author writes women.
This is something I found incredible, particularly given that it was inspired by the Kushiel's Dart books, which feature a well-written, multifaceted woman, who is strong, both conniving and kindhearted, and on top of all that, is all of those qualities while being a masochistic submissive. HOW can this book have such horrendously written women when it's inspired by THAT woman? I'm baffled.
This was really not a good book. Free was the appropriate price to pay for it (and, if anyone's curious, at the time of this writing, it is free on Smashwords and Amazon), but even then... It was tough to get through, and I will not be reading the subsequent books.
(review of free book)