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Shadowhawk reviews two more upcoming novels by Del Rey/Random House, the steampunk adventure A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz and the spy thriller The Hammer of Angels by G.T. Almasi, the second of his Shadowstorm series.
On A Conspiracy of Alchemists: “A truly fantastic steampunk debut, A Conspiracy of Alchemists is one of the most engaging novels I’ve read in recent weeks.” ~The Founding Fields
On The Hammer of Angels: “Not exactly as good as his debut, Almasi still tells a masterful story about identity, revenge and family against the backdrop of a Cold War-era styled world.” ~The Founding Fields
My first such double review for Random House/Del Rey books was profoundly negative, since I barely enjoyed the two books I read and was massively disappointed with both. Not so for the two books I’m reviewing today, since these were books that held my attention throughout and made me want to get to the endings as fast as I could.
Liesel Schwarz’s debut novel is the second steampunk novel that I recall reading, the other being Tim Akers’ The Horns of Ruin, which I loved. I’ve wanted to read more steampunk novels since then, almost 9 months ago (probably more), but never quite got around to it, until I saw A Conspiracy of Alchemists on NetGalley, and was immediately intrigued. However, this is not a pure steampunk novel. Schwarz mixes in doses of urban fantasy and paranormal romance into the story as well, and so the novel is very much a mixed genre novel rather than being dominant in any one specific category. Which is all well and good with me, since I’ve had fun with mixed genre novels before, such as Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State among others.
A Conspiracy of Alchemists is about Eleanor “Elle” Chance, the pilot of a cross-Channel airship and the narrative charts her journey from Paris to Oxford to Austria to Istanbul as she discovers things about herself that she never could have imagined. On top of that, the mystery surrounding the death of her mother is also revealed, and that makes for a very racy narrative as Elle finds herself in completely uncharted territory. Accompanying her is British nobleman Hugh Marsh, who just so happens to be a senior Warlock as well. The emergent romance between the two of them is somewhat simplistic at times, but I enjoyed reading about how they fall in love with each other, despite their many differences early on, as well as their personality clashes.
In terms of the characters, while Elle and Marsh get a ton of development (only to be expected since they are the protagonists after all), some of the minor characters like the Oracle, and Elle’s friend Patrice are also given a fair bit of page-time. They are both also quite central to the overall plot, much more than is obvious at first. The twists involving them made for a very nuanced and engaging narrative. However, I do wish that Lord Abercrombie, the antagonist and bad guy, had gotten a fair bit of more exploration, since his character did not come across as realistic or suitably engaging as the other characters. A few more scenes involving him would have added to the narrative, rather than hinder it in any way I feel. That said, I’m undecided on the issue, since his relatively few appearances had the benefit to me of keeping me guessing as to his true motives. That is despite the fact that Schwarz gives a lot of hints as to what these goals may be, and in a way, it is all easy to deduce. As things stand though, I’m always wary of when things are that easy, and Schwarz fed my paranoia ably in that regard.
Elle is a strong and confident woman who stands very well on her own, and as the novel is very much about her and her family’s “dark” secrets, this was all the more welcome. Characters like her and few and far in between in my (admittedly) somewhat limited experience. She is portrayed as a woman who stands up for what she believes in, and even though she takes advice from those around her, ultimately she makes decisions on her own, instead of being forced into them. Marsh often acts as a sort of foil to her and he is always challenging her to be better, even though she may not realise it, and neither does he himself. It was exciting to read how their differences are resolved slowly, one by one, and a relationship begins that has a huge impact on the climax of what all the setup in the first half of the book leads up to.
The world-building here was top-notch. Schwarz’s alternate Europe is a world divided between the Light and the Shadow, ostensibly the good and the bad guys, with a ton of shades of grey in between. We have vampires here, and fairies, and alchemists and warlocks, and a whole lot more besides. There is a certain character, a female vampire, who appears midway through the novel, and she was one of the most fun characters in the entire novel because of that fact. She is charming and witty and even though she is used as a sort of info-dump on Marsh’s background, it didn’t really feel like it was an info-dump. Schwarz’s dialogue is at its best in those pages. The myth of the Delphi Oracle is tied up into everything as well, and that was a new take on urban fantasy in my experience. To be frank, the novel is absolutely jam-packed with things, and sometimes it was easy to get lost in the world, thereby losing sight of the steampunk elements (dirigibles and airships and what not included). I didn’t mind it however since the steampunk elements, when they took precedence, were written very well (the aforementioned airships, plus a very short and “sweet” airship battle in the middle of the novel).
Again, mixed genre novel is a good novel as long as the writing is good. My expectations of the novel were cautious at best, and by the time I was finished with the novel, I wanted a second novel immediately because my first extended taste of Schwarz’s writing had won me over.
The spy thriller Blades of Winter was my first such novel in ages, and it was a novel that I hold to be among my favourite reads of 2012, as well as a great debut novel that exceeded expectations. Consequently, I wanted a lot more out of the sequel, The Hammer of Angels, since Almasi had built up my expectations to that point. While I’m not sure if the sequel is better, it certainly is quite a decent read all told.
To begin with, it has been a few weeks since we last met Alix Nico and her friends and family. In all this time, she has been seriously over-working herself to bring the people who’ve wronged her family to justice, but the rewards have been next to non-existence since her enemies have a lot of leverage as it turns out. Additionally, her escapes in Europe and the Middle East from her last mission have caught up with her and she has to, in essence, go back and fix things. All well and good so far, until it turns out that what the agency really wants to do is to destabilise the political situation in Greater Germany so that the Germans are forced to continue their “peaceful” alliance with good old U S of A. This is when I started to feel that the narrative was losing its focus and when Alix Nico became nigh-on invincible. Even James Bond or Ethan Hunt or Nick Fury aren’t this good!
Once aspect in which The Hammer of Angels absolutely trumps is the enormous amount of insight we get into ExOps and its inner workings, particularly, all the different types of Levels and how they all work together. We also get to meet another female Level who happens to be somewhat of a contemporary to Alix within ExOps and their professional relationship was equal parts awesome and amusing. There’s something to be said for two biologically/bionically enhanced women laying waste to mob after mob of bad guys with their souped up guns and raw aggression. I feel no shame in admitting that things like these are a guilty pleasure of sorts for me. Everybody loves girls with guns, more when they are written well, and both Alix and her friend have that going for them. There was nothing cliche about them, exactly in keeping with Blades of Winter.
Another is the breakneck speed of the plot. Alix and her friends are told that they have to forment a near civil war in Greater Germany and this is exactly what happens. The whole chaos of the extended mission and the various scrapes that the characters end up in make for really action-heavy reading that often left me breathless. The teams move from place to place constantly and sometimes it gets a bit disconcerting, but never to the point where I felt put off with it.
Almasi continues to develop his setting as well, and we get to see a lot more of Europe this time around. The focus this time is very much on the civilian side of things, as we run into the rebels quite a bit, and meet their local supporters as well. The special notes at the end of each chapter, detailing various aspects of the setting in its totality, added to my sense of immersion throughout, just as they did in Blades of Winter. They add a certain depth and nuance to the narrative and the setting that would be quite obviously missing otherwise, and they help me understand all the things that are happening much better. The letters of Cyrus, Alix’s section head, are particularly noteworthy in this regard since they serve to flesh out his (minor) character quite a bit.
If I had any criticisms of the novel they would be that Alix is way too invincible while going up against the bad guys, and that at times it feels like Almasi is trying to do a lot, more than is feasible for a book of this length. There are just too many concepts and events floating around that have a significant effect on the narrative, so things sometimes get jumbled up, which is never a good thing. Complexity and brevity go hand in hand. I would have also preferred if we had gotten to spend more time in each of the locations that Alix and her team end up in. The added focus would have helped tremendously I feel, since the overall thrust of what Almasi is trying to do here would have been much clearer, and we would have been able to get a much more in depth look at how the actions of all the ExOps on mission in Greater Germany are changing things within the borders of the premier European superpower.
I expected much more from the novel, but at the same time this was a great read, so I’m not all that fussed about it. I had fun reading the novel, and I would recommend it whole-heartedly.