Charlotte left the marketplace, spotting a trolley stopped on its rails taking on passengers. She hurried over, holding to the strap of her satchel, and stepped up into the cramped compartment, brushing past passengers who stood, holding onto leather handholds hanging from the roof. Men and women filled every crevice of the trolley and Charlotte had to shove her way past two arguing men. She finally spotted an empty seat near the center.
Funny enough, this is actually two separate paragraphs in the print version, but is a single paragraph in the Kindle version.
The main question here, though, is what is Sauron’s princess doing on public transit? It’s hopefully not an “I just love to mingle with the commonfolk” thing, considering the neighbor she ends up with:
A slumbering man in a worn, filthy suit lay beside her. He cradled a bottle of Dresht Rum in his arms as he slumped over the seat, snoring like a starved mist-hound.
And it’s not like this book can’t be judged by its cover. Dude tries to grope her later on, something that provokes no reaction at all from Charlotte, so apparently this Stalker that’s following her around either has a mandate to only intervene if Charlotte faces some kind of existential danger or else it’s just asleep at the wheel.
Charlotte reads a newspaper and comments internally about its inaccurate portrayal of her evil overlord father:
Charlotte’s father never left the city, never even left his tower. Too busy eating and drinking his fill of wine while dallying with his dozen or so concubines. And why would he, with so many loyal sycophants to do his bidding?
If he’s completely uninvolved in the day-to-day affairs of the empire, then his courtiers are necessarily de facto in charge of everything and killing him accomplishes nothing. We’ll see if the book notices this at all.
The book then delves a bit into the history of this sinister overlord:
Harthum, as the story is told, had vowed on his true love’s grave that with his immortality he would preserve their love. He did so by marrying each one of his daughters who would then suspiciously only give birth to female children. Due to his immortal nature, his children were all born healthy individuals and separated from Harthum until the time came for them to marry. Charlotte herself had only met him once before, during the time that he chose Lindris as his next bride. Overall, the elegant writing of Love Across the Ages turned an obstruction of moral law into a rich romance. Charlotte’s fingers tensed on her satchel at the thought.
Charlotte objects to “an obstruction of moral law,” but ideas of “moral law” pretty reliably come from powerful institutions. Daddy Sauron has controlled all powerful institutions for all of living memory. After five hundred years of subjugation (at least in this city – the world in general may not have been dominated for this long), all remnants of previous moral orders would have been well and truly stamped out. Charlotte would be familiar with them, if at all, only as historical curiosities. Of course, since she’s in line to be married to the immortal incest dictator, she has reason to be sympathetic to ancient, deprecated moral codes, but this passage isn’t written as though she subscribes to fringe philosophies from the ancient past. It just ignores the societal effects of having the most powerful and famous figure in society be openly incestuous for centuries.
So on the down side, the entirety of the effects of Daddy Sauron’s centuries-long reign seem to be limited to “CJ Olsen really wishes he was Brandon Sandersen.” On the bright side, though, there is some indication here that the description of Charlotte being noticeably focused on sexual attributes is, in fact, a result of her having been literally crafted to suit an evil overlord’s PornHub tags.
Charlotte is apparently going from one library directly to another library, and given that she doesn’t seem to have any particular research goal, just a broad interest in alchemy, that’s not really helping with her “generic nerd waif” characterization. She also climbs a ladder to shelf 43 despite her fear of heights, and there’s a whole thing about how terrifying it is. Doesn’t she do this all the time, though? After however many years, has she still not gotten used to it?
Also, given standard bookshelves are about 18 to 24 inches tall, shelf 43 is some 80 feet in the air. We are way past the point where it would be more sensible to just build a second floor and put new bookshelves on that, or at least to build catwalks that allow for easier access to higher shelves. Given they have sufficient dedication to academia to have such an absurdly mega-huge library in the first place, why are they skimping out on some basic quality of life infrastructure?
Oh, also, Charlotte is secretly in love with the head librarian Jonathon, just in case an impending wedding to her incestuous overlord father wasn’t keeping her character sufficiently relentless in its focus on who she’s boinking. It doesn’t help that they have all the chemistry of a damp tablecloth. Observe:
“Thank you Jonathon,” she said, smiling. “I thought you would maybe join me again for another study?”
“I would love to Lady Charlotte,” he said kindly, walking by her side toward the study area in the back. “However, I cannot be too long. I have a few things I must attend to. You see, a shipment of books arrived this morning plagued with wood worms.”
Charlotte put a hand to her mouth in surprise suppressing a giggle.
Jonathon looked at her, grinning. “Apparently, books are a ferocious breeding ground for the little, or should I say previously little, insects.”
Charlotte smiled broadly. “Well, at least Ethyl will have something to scowl at other than loud patrons.”
“This is true,” Jonathon said smiling back. “Although Ethyl has now begun to blame me for the shipment. She believes I am fiscally responsible for the damages because I chose a cheaper shipping company.” They shared a laugh as they entered the study area.
“And I agree with her,” Charlotte teased. “Ethyl is a wise woman and only chastises those who deserve it. I have yet to be scolded by her, unlike yourself.”
“Yes, the woman cannot seem to look beyond the young apprentice that slipped anchovies into her tea.” They continued laughing as they seated themselves at an empty desk.
At some point, Charlotte’s internal monologue takes her to the history of how Daddy Sauron took over (half) the world.
Charlotte read the Histories multiple times – they were much more practical then Harthum’s novels – studying the different contradictions they glanced over. This created more questions than answers. Didn’t the Eternals use the same methods to conquer as the opposing force? Why was their army of alchemic creatures different from the others? Did drinking the Elixir of Life also grant them the ability to decide what was right or wrong? Did no one see that by regulating Alchemy they also regulated trade? Airships cannot fly over the treacherous wastelands without alchemic engines. And alchemic engines cannot be used without the strict permission, authorization, and maintenance of the Crimson Order. Buildings that use alchemic engineering cannot function without the Order. Everything was regulated by simply controlling the source of power.
“He who controls the alchemy, controls the universe” is not a bad premise for a book or anything, but the way “did no one see that by regulating [a]lchemy they also regulated trade” is written implies that it’s some kind of fundamental moral law built into all cultures that trade should not be regulated. It’s not the first time that it seems like Charlotte walked into this library directly from the streets of Provo, Utah, a town where you can safely assume that probably most people view the regulation of trade as a bad thing. After five hundred years of continuous, overt domination by means of alchemy control, libertarianism should be dead. Assuming it ever even existed. If the timeline of tech and philosophy for this world tracks loosely to ours, Daddy Sauron has been ruling since he won the Hundred Years War in the 14th century. Such direct tracking isn’t really necessary and an evil overlord’s century-spanning reign would not be a bad justification for centuries of tech stagnation, but what I’m getting at here is that even a 1:1 comparison to our world would be better worldbuilding than what we’re getting so far.
The chapter ends with some goons from the Crimson Order telling Charlotte that her father wants to meet with her tonight. Dun dun etc.
This chapter opens us up with Alister (the discount Han Solo from the prologue). As irritating as the second chapter was with its relentlessly myopic worldbuilding, the basic premise here still has promise. That our main villain is incest Sauron feels a little tryhard aping of the whole shock milieu that’s sprung up in the wake of Game of Thrones, but the basic premise of a sheltered bookworm trying to assassinate her immortal overlord father with the help of a sky pirate in order to escape her arranged marriage can still work, seeing as how Charlotte is presumably going to set sail for adventure at some point, leaving Jonathon behind and hopefully managing to go at least one full chapter motivated by something other than marriage and children.
That assumes that CJ Olsen can make setting sail for adventure work, and a chapter from Alister’s perspective is going to prove that one way or another. Here we go.
Wind from the ridge rustled Alister’s unruly dirty blonde hair, his strange goggles strapped across his forehead. He wore dark pants and a coat over a light tan vest and white-buttoned shirt. A holster, with two leather straps that wrapped around his right thigh, held a large polished revolver. The back of his coat used brown leather straps to hold in place a cylindrical device, the size of a man’s bicep, against his lower back. A coiled grey hose ran from the cylinder to a sheathed three-foot-long cleaver. The strange weapon had a hilt, like that of a dueling blade with a thick iron guard, the hose connecting to its base. The blade however resembled a butcher’s meat cleaver: thick, rectangular, and sharp on one side. Alister called the weapon a golem cleaver and the cylindrical device that powered the blade a motivator engine. His left hand also wore an odd coppery contraption, like a thick metal glove that enveloped the top of his hand, a wide bracer locked in place around his wrist. The equipment were all inventions of Alister’s own design.
So on the one hand, it is important to establish these weird technomagic devices before we see them in action. On the other hand, this is not great description. I haven’t read enough of the chapter to know if this would really work, but the immediate solution that occurs to me is to have one of the devices break and require a replacement part, which Alister can seek out in the town he’s visiting. It’s a rundown old mining town, but mines need equipment, so if the broken part is a common one, that can still work. It gives Alister an immediate motivation instead of us just watching him walk into a town for no apparent reason, and it gives us an excuse to look at Alister’s inventions more closely without just dumping all the description into an oversized, hard to follow paragraph.
We do eventually learn that Alister is here looking for work to repay his debts, presumably to Jabba the Hutt. He’s got a buddy in this ramshackle town he’s come to with a job offer for him, specifically, offering him exactly enough money to repay his debts, which are over three million marks. I have no idea how much a mark is worth in this setting, but that sounds like an awful lot of money and I’m wondering how on Earth Alister got a big enough line of credit to even run up debts that high. The job? To meet up with, accompany, and protect an unnamed woman (very probably Charlotte) from the capital city of Callan, no questions asked.
Alister runs into some enemies, by context probably bounty hunters, on his way out.
“Finally,” cried Jeech from the open yard in front of the porch. “Alister Rose, I nearly broke two blood oaths chasing you across this Honorless land.”
Alister peered around the side of the door but another bullet fired past his face, scattering woodchips across the pub floor. He set his head against the rickety wall, causing it to shake and rain dust down from the ceiling.
“Now come, Alister Rose,” the lanky man said, speaking with an Abaric accent, his intonations going high every time he finished a sentence. “By Honor himself, you have been one slippery pup.”
“You’re not going to come out then?” Jeech called.
Alister peered around once more. The two men stood at the entrance to the large porch.
“Well, I guess we will just have to come in there and drag your Honorless hide out.”
“Remember what he did to us in Remblewood,” Sigal said.
“I know what I’m doing,” Jeech growled. “Fear is of the Honorless.”
Alister peered around once more, judging where they stood. Jeech saw and leveled his gun.
“Yes, Honorless dogs like this one and his father.”
Seriously, I cut out a little in between these, but every single one of these references to capital-H Honor comes from the same two pages. Like, I got that Honor is some kind of important concept beyond the usual definition of that word from the first time it was used, this guy doesn’t have to hammer it in with every fucking line of dialogue.
Alister collapses a precariously hung sign onto the two, and as he’s leaving, the guy running the pub, alarmingly unbothered by all the damage done to his shop and the way the pirates killed his dog, calls out some final advice to Alister as he leaves:
“And don’t go fallin’ for this “young woman” you’re escortin’, ya hear?” called Ambrose. “Callan nobles are a heap of trouble. And remember I get a cut of that. I don’t run no charity here!”
Just in case we were worried that Charlotte would ever develop a personality or motivation not directly related to who she wants to fuck.