by Zoë Archer, historical/fantasy (2010)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0679-4
Warrior is the first book in Zoë Archer's The Blades Of The Rose series. Set in an alternate version of 1874 where magic and big fantastic machinery are everywhere, this one revolves around the feud between two covert British groups, the Blades of the Rose and the Heirs of Albion. The Blades are the good guys while the Heirs are the bad guys.
What happens is this: as Great Britain expands her grip and forms an empire across the world, the Heirs are happy because they believe that it is only right that they, er, the country rule over the world as they are, after all, better than everyone else. The Blades believe otherwise. In this world, there are many ancient magical relics, called the Sources by these two groups, hidden all over the place. The Heirs make it their mission to seek out these Sources to increase their power. The Blades make it their mission to stop them from doing so. Because the Blades love to make lives difficult for themselves - it isn't heroic unless you get to be a martyr, after all - they refuse to use magic and awesome gadgetry that they do not develop themselves, while the Heirs will use anything they can get their hands on to get the upper hand.
If this series seemed to have something in common with The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you may just be right because we are talking about a historical setting cheerful re-imagined into a steampunk paradise of sorts. However, there is more magic here than awesome gadgetry and machinery. Still, the tone and atmosphere are steampunk-like in nature.
Capt Gabriel Huntley, formerly of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, has barely set foot on Southampton, London, when he realizes that he's feeling restless already. While he has no longer the stomach for constant warfare, he is a man of action. A future of starting a family with some local girl and making a living as a textile agent in Leeds seems like a stable and welcome change for a man tired of killing, but as this future looms closer, Gabriel realizes that he prefers a more... unpredictable life. When he by chance interrupts an attack by what seems like a few thugs on a gentleman in a dark alley, he stumbles into an adventure to remember.
He is too late to save the gentleman, but the man asks Gabriel to pass an important message on his behalf. The gentleman in question, Anthony Morris, saves Gabriel from being fatally shot during the fight, so Gabriel is obligated to carry out this man's request. The thing is, Anthony wants Gabriel to travel to Urga, Outer Mongolia, and pass a most cryptic message to one Franklin Burgess. Gabriel can board the ship Anthony is supposed to board that night. Gabriel does just that, a part of him most eager to get going because the whole thing seems like an action-packed adventure right up his alley.
He arrives in Urga to find Franklin suffering from a broken leg. Franklin is actually a Blade, but because his leg is broken, he is unable to carry out his mission to locate and protect the Source in Mongolia before the Heirs get their hands on it. His daughter, Thalia, insists that she will go in his place. Gabriel, naturally, refuses to be left out of the fun.
Warrior is exactly what it says on the box: an action-packed adventure with romance, magic, and danger. For someone who is on her first field assignment, so to speak, Thalia manages to hold her own pretty well, although she is understandably outclassed by Gabriel who has far more experience than her in stomping villains and such. Gabriel is quite the straightforward guy: he lives for the adrenaline, he's all about kicking rear ends of bad guys, and his view about the world is pretty uncomplicated. Both feel insecure about being good enough for the other person now and then, but don't expect too much angst and drama there. After all, people who want to save Mongolia from being enslaved by British tyrants do not have much time to get all hot and bothered while analyzing their feelings for each other.
My complaint is going to seem odd, but here it is: I glaze over the love scenes and I get impatient over the quieter moments in the Mongol camp somewhere in the late middle part of the story because I prefer the unfolding of the plot to the development of the romance. I don't particularly care about the romance between Gabriel and Thalia because it's not a very deep or complex one and, therefore, it is the least interesting aspect of a story that is filled with magic and stuff. Every time the author pauses to let the characters make love or to let other characters comment on how obviously in love those two are, I feel the momentum of the story coming to a screeching halt.
Also, a part of me feels rather cheated when the author chooses to have some vital scenes take place off stage and have the characters recount those moments to me instead. Furthermore, there are many moments when Gabriel hears Thalia discussing things with her servant in the Mongolian language. Because Gabriel doesn't understand Mongolian, I have no clue what those two are saying as a result. Why would the author tell me that a conversation is taking place without giving me any idea what the conversation is about? It's quite annoying when such a scene takes place quite frequently in the early parts of the story.
I don't have any major problem with the rest of the story, though. The whole thing is pure fun right up to the dramatic confrontation between the bad guys and the good guys, although there is a dramatic confrontation between a Mr Sequel Bait and a golem that takes place offstage and is only recounted to me in a short snippet of conversation, sigh. Still, this story has been a blast. Warrior is quite an adventure in itself: it is neither too deep nor complicated, but it offers plenty of straightforward fun. The publicity material has it right, I feel, when it compares this book to movie franchises like The Mummy and Indiana Jones.
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