My review so far has been a litany of small complaints, and that’s never a good sign. It could be worse. Small complaints, at least, are not large complaints. There’s no Zuula moment here where there’s a scene so horribly, self-righteously self-indulgent and counter-productive that it becomes a massive black mark on the entire book. It’s theoretically possible that the book will suddenly start to take off and I’ll be quite positive on it overall when we come to the end. But as I’ve said many times before, even though the book can recover, it’s not very likely that it will recover, because if CJ Olsen can write a great second half of a book, why can he not also write a great first half of a book? Why would he wait this long to start trying? Probably he is trying, and this is just the best he’s got.
Not to say the book has been devoid of interesting ideas. There’s some reasonably interesting setting work going on in the background, with the golems and chimeras and airships. But while that is reasonably interesting, it’s not the kind of Morrowind-style wild and imaginative world that makes me happy just to walk through it regardless of how bland the characters I’m following are. This world is a decent foundation with just the most boring house in the world built on top of it. The story needs its characters to be propelling it, and they’re not. There’s no chemistry in the budding romance that’s meant to be at the heart of this story, nor to the friendship with Tatiana that Charlotte left behind – that friendship being her driving motivation to assassinate Harthum rather than just walking away. And that lack of chemistry means that I don’t much care whether or not Charlotte succeeds in her quest, nor am I happy to have any excuse to watch her and Alister go on a wacky steampunk adventure together.
What I’m getting at, here, is that part of the reason this review has been delayed is because of how much I’m not especially excited to get back into it.
So anyway, Alister’s new pet golem crashed through the wall of the pirate tavern where they’ve just recruited Giovanni to the party. Everyone escapes, but Alister does so by firing a little grappling hook from his techno-gauntlet to latch onto the fleeing golem, and ends up getting dragged along the ground long enough to end up badly shredded. He’s unconscious by the time they reach the ship, so Giovanni flies while Charlotte plays nurse. She leaves him in his cot to go and grab a canteen, and that’s when the ship is attacked, presumably by pirates. Charlotte is below-decks and can’t tell. The book really tries to sell me on the romance here, though.
Another whistle echoed down the corridor. Charlotte tucked her head between her knees as The Ephrait shook from an explosion, this one on the opposite side. The Ephrait pitched and the canteen rolled to the wall with a metallic ping. Charlotte squeezed into a tight ball. Her knuckles were white as she held tight to the ship. She suddenly recognized where she sat. It was the same pipes she had clung to her first time boarding The Ephrait.
Alister had sat there, she looked to her right. He promised I would be safe.
She looked up at the canteen.
…I must help him.
The little scene where Alister convinced her not to be so afraid of heights isn’t doing nearly the work this book wants it to, and worse, it doesn’t even particularly have to. Humans have a natural instinct to protect their in-group, and Charlotte and Alister are very definitely in this together. She doesn’t need a special reason to help her allies survive, she just needs to not be a sociopath. Hell, even a sociopath would want to keep what few allies they have in good condition in Charlotte’s situation, provided they were smart enough to think that far ahead (which, granted, many of them are not).
Anyway, there’s another escape scene that doesn’t really bear commenting on because we just did this. Maybe some of the things it establishes are going to come up later, but we just escaped from Callan, escaped from Prawle, and are now escaping from the airspace around Prawle. Every other scene in this book is an escape scene, and every effort at character interaction during or in between has been interminable.
The chapter opens with a philosophical discussion about the nature of happiness. Except it’s really poorly executed.
“Ya didn’t tell me there’d be no bleedin’ booze on the ship. How ‘m I suppose ta enjoy myself?”
“Mr. Giovanni, the philosopher Sardona once said ‘dependence on alcohol is akin to falling from a large height. You may not feel the death but it is coming.’”
Alister and Giovanni shared a glance.
Charlotte cleared her throat. “Surely you do not need a drink to enjoy yourself?”
Giovanni barked a derisive laugh and leaned in. “I’ll tell ya a secret, missy. There’re only three things that men enjoy: money, alcohol, ‘n women. I have no money ‘n from the look o’ things, neither does this jackass,” he motioned to Alister. “With no money comes the no alcohol,” he gestured to his tin cup full of coffee. “An’ women… well yer far too young ‘n innocent fer me.”
Charlotte put her arms protectively to her chest and shot a wary eye at the large man. “Mr. Giovanni, the pursuit of happiness goes much further than intoxication, wealth, and loose women. Those are simply base desires. Family, love, honesty… those are worthwhile endeavors that bring true happiness.” She quickly looked at Alister, then turned away and sat down across from him.
The problem here is that Charlotte doesn’t really talk like she’s actually got a coherent philosophy, more like she feels superior to people who express lower class values. Which means this bit is basically just Charlotte and Giovanni being assholes at each other. Eventually this scene meanders around to actually having a story function.
“Giovanni,” Alister asked. “How far is the Blight from the borders of the Wastes? Are we talking about a couple of days or…”?
“Well ya can’t fly there.”
“Too many o’ those flyin’ alchemic beasts. They’ll tear yer ship apart. Seen it happen with me own eyes.”
“You mean we’re not taking The Ephrait?” Alister asked, surprised. “What, are we going to walk to the Blight?”
Giovanni nodded. “We’re landin’ in a borderland village. It’s a few days in from there.”
Alister groaned and dragged his hands down his face.
“Gotta be careful ‘round them villagers, by the way, bunch o’ cutthroats and murderers. They seem ta be drawn there on account of it bein’ so remote.”
Given that “yay airships” is one of the only selling points this book has right now, the promise to ditch one in favor of walking has not got me excited. But also, if a village is really remote, then its primary inhabitants are going to be whoever happened to be born there. People only get to self-sort in situations where moving from one location to another is easy.
Most of this chapter is dedicated to tiresome bickering and eye-roll inducing internal monologues. Here’s an example from towards the end:
“Oh, of course Alister, it is none of my business. By the way, when we must escape a hail of cannon fire once again will you kindly remind your friends that it is none of my business.”
Alister exhaled in frustration and dragged his hand down his face. “Why are you making this job more difficult than it needs to be?!”
Because I like you.
The thought came uninvited into her mind. She opened her mouth to respond but stopped and closed it.
Charlotte’s prefixation with who she will or won’t boink is nearly mono-maniacal. Not only does that make her super bland, but she also thinks she’s entitled to the affection of specific other people and that she has been betrayed when they don’t give it to her. This is the root of her sexual tension with Alister. Why would I want to see her get together with Alister or anyone else when the only thing standing in her way is a refusal to admit to the existence of her one personality trait?