Alright. Final stretch. I missed a day, but once I get out of this book I think I’ll be good. I’ll admit that part of my problem here is that I have spent a lot of time playing a perfectly legal non-pirate MMORPG, which is making everything seem less engaging than usual, but also part of the problem is that this is not a very interesting book.
Anyway, Alister has realized he loved Charlotte, because apparently he’s real slow on the uptake with regards to his own emotions, and is trying to help her assassinate Harthum? Or is just trying to track her down so he can tell her that he’s in love with her? It’s really not clear what his actual goal is here, and this mainly just feels like the scene from a romcom where the guy tries to reach the girl and profess his love, except the stakes are so much fucking higher that it all comes across like farce. Like, dude, she’s trying to assassinate an evil overlord. How much do you love her really, that getting her to tick a box in your “do you like me?” note is more important than the fact that she is very probably about to die?
Like, look at this:
As he ran back to the airfield, Alister counted the hours on his hands. Four hours to Callan at full speed plus finding a way into the Eternal’s palace. I’m not going to make it, Alister thought and he picked up speed. A small box tucked away in his jacket pocket bumped against his leg with every stride. Inside was Alister’s mother’s necklace. I have to try, he thought to himself. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.
Maybe the idea here is that Alister wants to help her save the world, because it never explicitly contradicts that, but the emphasis on the love present he nearly gave her until he found her letter to Jonathon suggests that no, he just wants to propose. Can’t that wait until after the assassination attempt?
Hancock took out an old battered map and studied its intricate depictions of the servant’s halls. “How come,” Charlotte said between breaths, “there are not any guards posted? Anyone could sneak in and…”
“And kill an immortal?” Hancock asked with a raised eyebrow.
Or bomb an immortal, or rob an immortal, or unkidnap an immortal’s concubine(s) or assassinate all of an immortal’s court and cabinet or kidnap an immortal and remove him from his tower since apparently staying in the tower is a necessary component of his immortality, or any of a dozen other things that could seriously inconvenience an immortal regardless of whether or not it would kill him. Sure, the specific mission that Charlotte and Hancock are on would be doomed to failure without their special trump card (it’s probably doomed to failure anyway, and will be saved by a last minute reversal, but you get the idea), but there are all kinds of other missions you could pull off in a completely unguarded center of the government.
Charlotte nodded, her face going pale. “Captain Hancock, I do not think this is going to work.” She lowered her arm and held the gun carefully in both hands. “What if touching the stone to him is not effective?”
Hancock looked at her with uncharacteristic softness. She set a comforting hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. “I believe in action, Charlotte. We cannot know if we do not try. Let us face down Harthum and hope that those forgotten gods of the past are with us.”
It’s amazing you’ve lasted this long in a military command position. This whole problem where touching the stone to Harthum was pulled completely from Charlotte’s ass could’ve been solved with a bit of arcanobabble and it would mean all of these conversations would be “theoretically it might work but we can’t test it” rather than “I’ve got a hunch, let’s stake our lives and our only potentially immortal-killing weapon on it.”
In which Charlotte confronts Harthum. But, y’know, doesn’t actually win, because obviously. Partly obviously because we’ve still got 9% of a book left and that can’t all be back matter and sneak previews, partly because Alister needs to show up and confess his love and I assume that this book, being merely mediocre and not full-on incompetent, won’t have that happen as an afterthought after hanging the entire middle of the book on their romance (and half of the beginning on the fakeout romance with Jonathon!).
Part of the infiltration here is that they’re all dressed as servants. Charlotte is specifically in a slutty maid outfit:
Charlotte slipped on the uniform. The skirts fanned out to mid-thigh and there were silky stockings to cover her legs. Charlotte tugged the low-cut top up as high as she could before stepping out from the shadows.
That bit is from back in chapter 24, but I didn’t bring it up at the time because that isn’t particularly worse than any of the other disrobings or scanty outfits that Charlotte’s been shoved into by this narrative. FYI, those are still ongoing, they never stopped, but I bring it up now because when Charlotte confronts Harthum, this is the first thing he says to her:
The Eternal cocked his head, looking past Hancock. A satisfied smile broke across his face. “Is that my daughter behind you?” he chuckled. “My dear Charlotte, I hardly recognized you in that maid’s outfit.” He lifted an eyebrow. “It fits you quite well.”
The first time Charlotte came here, she was dressed up to suit Harthum’s tastes. The second time, she is…still that. And the narrative draws attention to it. Thematically speaking, the smart thing to do here would be to have Charlotte come here dressed in a plain, pragmatic dress, the kind she’d pick out for herself, or dressed in the sort of men’s clothing suitable to adventure that she should have been wearing for most of the book, although in the actual text she spent a lot of time in a belly dancer outfit and then in a bikini of torn rags. Instead, nothing has changed at all, which is true of Charlotte as a character as well as her literal wardrobe. The narrative repeatedly insists that she’s not the frightened girl she was the first time she came here, but what’s different? She was impotently defiant before, she’s impotently defiant now. There’s no solemn commitment or cocky self-confidence or anything else that would lend her defiance a new power. She’s trying to buck up and put on a brave face to confront Daddy Sauron, which is exactly where she was at the beginning of the book.
Oh, also, Charlotte’s wild guess turns out to be not just wrong but catastrophically so.
He looked down at the stone once more as if he thought it were all a dream then at Charlotte. “Do you know what you have brought me, Charlotte? You have given me the world. You have given me the key to completing my goal. Not even Laedris may stand in my way now!” He brushed his fingers across the stone lovingly as if it were the most precious metal known to man. “This is better than I could have imagined.” He looked down at her. His slicked-back hair had fallen loose and some strands fell across his forehead. He knelt on one knee. “Tell me where you found this. We thought it had been lost in Labati. Is that where you found it?”
I’d have to put a moratorium on the whole “Charlotte’s wild guess is stupid” thing except that we’re close enough to the end of the book for it not to matter.
Alister breaks in to try and rescue Charlotte, kills his two pet chimeras, and blows him up with dynamite. All of this is ultimately just a setback to Harthum, but still, could’ve prevented this with some guards, man. You already have an army. Can you really not spare a platoon of it for this kind of thing? Also Alister gets his arm ripped off, so probably at some point that’s going to be replaced with cyborg bits.
The story belatedly begins having Charlotte behave with some actual goddamn intelligence. When Harthum blew up, his lower half regenerated the top half. All the other bits of him disappeared. Back a bunch of chapters ago, when Giovanni tried to smash the alchemy super stone, the chipped bits vanished in the same way when they regenerated. So the connection here is that Harthum is somehow a philosopher’s stone, and the whole tower is his flask. Which, okay, that’s a reasonable bit of arcanobabble deduction, taking the concept of “flask theory” and giving it some actual consequences. The problem is Harthum told us he needs to stay in his tower twenty chapters ago! Sure, we now have a better understanding of the reason, but the actionable information has been there since the beginning of the book.
Harthum explains to Alister that he wants to create a world without Alchemy so that no one can figure out how to kill him. He does this by first signalling that he is going to initiate a villainous monologue:
Harthum stood from his chair and looked out through two pillars into open sky. “You are going to die after you show me this Alchemy-free engine, so I suppose it would not hurt to tell you my vision.”
And also the book keeps dancing around the whole “Harthum is a philosopher’s stone and the tower is his flask” thing as though it’s a big reveal and not 1) pretty obvious at this point and 2) the most critical information of that revelation were explicitly told to us up front clear back in Charlotte’s very first confrontation with Harthum. Look at this, for example:
“It might come as a surprise to you but there is actually a way to kill me.” He bent down to meet Alister face to face. “Of course it takes an advanced knowledge of Alchemy and all its workings. Something I have been working on dissuading for a long time.”
Harthum is monologuing all the exposition necessary to understand the stakes, but holding onto the secret to his immortality. What’d work way better is to have Alister figure this out for himself. He doesn’t even have to know how Harthum’s immortality works. He can just work out that Harthum became immortal through alchemy, so alchemy must be able to reverse that immortality as well, so that’s Harthum’s motivation for wanting to extract the secrets of non-alchemical steampunk tech from Alister. That way he can do away with the Crimson Order and be the sole keeper of the knowledge of alchemy, while still having a technologically advanced society to rule over.
Back in the prison tower, Annie comes in to bust Charlotte out, because apparently this prison isn’t guarded by even a single golem (Crimson Order golems have been shown to be stronger than Annie during the ambush just outside the Blight, even though she tears through human guards like tissue paper). Harthum sucks at security. In fact, he sucks at security so badly that despite Alister having shouted out to Charlotte where his ship was docked during their failed escape, Charlotte is apparently able to go directly from her prison break to the Ephrait with so little opposition that it happens offpage, fly directly to Harthum’s tower, impale him with the grapple-anchor that the ship uses to attach itself to canyon walls when at rest, and drag him out of the tower. He’s able to grab onto a pillar with his super strength, but Hancock tosses Alister a gun, Alister shoots Harthum in the face, and he loses his grip and is tugged out of the tower. It’s not quite as banal as all that. Hancock’s high as a kite because Harthum planned to re-concubine her after he’d finished interrogating Alister (because of course we need both our female characters to be sexual victims of the villain, how else would the audience know he’s the bad guy), and Alister has recently lost an arm, so there’s a whole scene where Alister is staggering towards the gun and Hancock is trying to focus.
It’s three weeks later and apparently the Crimson Order is totally chill with Charlotte, Alister, and Hancock. Also, turns out that Harthum is infertile, and he’s actually just been breeding men who look kinda like him with his descendants for a billion generations. I’m not sure what the point of this plot twist is. Anyway, Hancock bluffs having an army of infiltrators ready to tear the Crimson Order apart at any moment, which, on top of being one of Harthum’s heirs, makes Charlotte queen. This is reasonably well thought out. The bluff works to keep the Crimson Order from just staging a coup and Charlotte has legitimacy with the existing regime. There would not be a huge public uproar if Charlotte were to inherit after Harthum’s unexpected demise, because obviously the public are not informed of how fucked up Harthum’s relationship with his “daughters” is, and the upper classes are being offered amnesty for their crimes against humanity and threatened with civil war if they don’t, so it’s perfectly sensible that they shrug their shoulders, keep their wealth and status, and help oversee the transition from alchemy to steam tech instead of gambling their lives for ultimate power.
Alister’s leaving to pay off his creditors, because apparently he has to go do that in person despite the fact that he’s on a first name basis with a global hegemon, but they clear up their romcom misunderstanding first and make out before he leaves.
I have no fucks to give. Seriously, it’s not that I hate this book, I’m just exhausted with it, won’t be reading the sequel, and thus don’t care what’s being set up here. The story is over, it’s not like this epilogue is going to seriously revise my opinion.