Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: Hatshepsut's Collar

Hatshepsut's Collar by A.W. Exley 
This was a solicited review.  The author (who has been known to hang out around this blog) requested me to review her latest book in exchange for a free copy.

This is the second book in a series, so I had a little bit of catch-up to do since I haven't read the first.  For the most part it wasn't particularly difficult to keep up, but I do wish I had seen the beginning of the relationship between the two main characters, as I felt it would have helped my understanding of them.

The book centers on the professional and romantic relationship between Cara Devon and Viscount Nathaniel Lyons.  Nate runs an airship company whose imports are sometimes of dubious legality and is also an agent of the Queen.  Unfortunately there is a mysterious falling out between himself and Queen Victoria and he is arrested and thrown into the Tower of London.  At which point Cara must take over his operations to rescue him.  Their adventures take them to Imperial Russia and back before the story is done, on the trail of a disturbing conspiracy to overthrow the throne of England.

The setting is fairly standard for a steampunk novel.  The Victorian England depicted is close to the historical one, and the author seems to be knowledgeable about the period.  Of course there are also airships all over the place, both in the hands of pirates and privateers and Her Majesty's Airship Corps.  There is also a distinct fantasy element in the world, mostly in the mysterious artifacts around which the plot revolves.  These are ancient artifacts (such as the titular Hatshepsut's Collar) with supernatural powers.  I won't go into more detail for fear of spoiling the plot.  I did find some of the supernatural aspects of the story some of the hardest to buy into.  For example, as a result, I gather, of the first novel's plot, the two protagonists are soul-bonded to each other and can communicate through a psychic link.  It's not that this idea is badly handled, but rather feels unnecessary to me.

In addition to being a steampunk adventure, the novel is a romance.  Again, it's a little difficult for me to completely decide how I feel about the central relationship because I feel like I'm missing pieces of the puzzle as a result of not reading the first book.  It's not a perfect romantic relationship, as Cara has problems trusting Nate, and they do not always communicate effectively.  There are explicit sex scenes, which honestly I felt were some of the weakest parts of the novel.  They felt a little clumsily incorporated into the story and there didn't seem to be a consensus from scene to scene of how much to describe and how much to obscure and it felt uneven.   (I say this as someone with a fair bit of experience writing explicit scenes myself, so I pay attention to more technical aspects than perhaps others do.) Overall, I ended up liking the characters and rooting for their relationship, but I wasn't drawn in to the romance in the way I really want to be when reading a romance.

But overall the novel is well-written and engaging.  I was pleased at the world-building and way in which historical and fantasy elements were combined.  The characters are well-drawn, including the more minor characters.  Some steampunk novels feature characters that feel like interchangeable cardboard cut-outs made to fulfill certain narrative roles, but these feel like real people, three-dimensional, flawed, and believable.

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