This week’s review is Shadows of Asphodel by author Karen Kincy. I met Karen at Norwescon this year, and before I went to her reading, I really had no concept of what the term “Deiselpunk” meant, other than a vague relation to Steampunk. By the time I left her reading, I knew I would have to pick up and review this book.
The story is dieselpunk; it has airships, electricity, occasional firearms and fossil-fuel powered vehicles. But honestly, what drew me into this book so whole-heartedly was the author’s alternate-history retelling of the early 1900′s historical conflicts in Europe. She spins the historical setting not only with her magical fantasy elements, but by telling it from the viewpoint of an American mercenary who has no clear allegiance to any of the factions. She twists that historical paradigm even further by making this mercenary (Ardis), obviously half-Caucasian/half-Chinese and female.
What impressed me about this book is the author makes all of that absolutely believable the whole way through.
The world and the characters truly felt dynamic and drew me into the story on page one, and I stayed right there in the world with the characters until the last page. This is one of the few books I’ve picked up this year which I can honestly say I’ll probably reread at some point, just for its sheer entertainment value.
Anyway, onto the premise of the book:
Ardis has traveled to Europe and hired herself out as a mercenary to Austria-Hungary, while she follows her own personal mission to find a man she believes to be her father. She doesn’t have much to go on: instructions from her mother to look in Europe, a fake name and a brass locket with a picture of her mother and her presumed father inside.
She’s found work as a bodyguard and contract-killer for the mages who have used a combination of magic and technology to create a “hex” over Austria-Hungary. If you’re inside the hex, firearms don’t work. That suits her just fine; she prefers her sword Chun Yi. Or, at least she does until she finds herself standing on the battlefield next to a dying necromancer.
According to legend, you never want to be the one to kill a necromancer, since their spirit will haunt yours forever. She can’t trust that his spirit won’t mistake her for his killer, so she really has no choice but to take him prisoner and try to get him healed. On the upside, maybe she can could turn him back over to the order of necromancers or his family for a ransom. Of course, it turns out that Wendel, (the-no-longer-dying necromancer) is not worth money, and a there are several really good arguments for him being a liability. Ardis is stuck with him anyway.
This story does fall in the outer boundary of the romance genre, since the resolution of one of the major plot points relies on Ardis being in a particular relationship, but it does not contain by any stretch of the imagination a “standard romance plot” or fall into the traps that cause many people to avoid the genre as “bodice rippers”. If anyone’s going to be doing any ripping in this book, it’s usually Ardis herself, and in any given scene, she’s more likely to have her sword, Chun Yi, sticking out someone’s back.
While the romance is there, it was very tastefully done. It didn’t get in the way of the plot or the world the author had created, but instead seamlessly blended in to the general milieu of airships, hexes, automatons, and necromancy. I believe even those who usually shy away from anything labelled “romance” would still find this story an enjoyable read. There are several sex scenes, but they don’t overwelm or take up the majority of the story. In fact, if sex makes you squeam-ey, you can totally skip over those scenes and still be ok.
Not to mention that Ardis’ romantic interest (and general partner in crime) is a snarky, fly-by-the -seat-of-his-pants necromancer with an Absinthe habit. Wendel, the wise-cracking-corpse-raiser, is not exactly who you usually expect when someone says “romantic lead.”
Still, whether you’re a reader of romance or not, feel no fear and go pick this book up. It’s just a darn good read that should satisfy both audiences.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and hope that the author lets me go back to the world again soon. You can bet I’ll be picking up book two when it comes out.