The Scarlet Empress
by Susan Grant, futuristic (2004)
LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52597-6


Oh, Bree "Banzai" Maguire. Oh, Susan Grant. The conclusion of the 2176 series, The Scarlet Empress, kicks up the storm and does more to advance the story arc that started with The Legend Of Banzai Maguire than the previous three books did. I enjoy the 2176 series because it's the closest thing I can find in a romance genre to a credible science-fiction romance series but somehow by the last page, I find myself still wondering when the party is going to start.

Readers who haven't read The Legend of Banzai Maguire should stop reading right here and go pick up that book first for two reasons. One, while The Scarlet Empress can stand alone, the reader will have a better appreciation of the story if she has read the former book. Secondly, some of things in this review may be a spoiler for those who haven't read The Legend Of Banzai Maguire.

Okay, in this book, Bree's fellow pilot, Cam, is revealed to have spent the time since her returning to consciousness in a Mongolian farm. Her body is still wounded from the airplane crash. Unable to move much without hurting, she understandably accepts the words of the people who took her in that this world is one without modern technology so she's stuck in a B-grade post-apocalyptic Mad Max scenario (only with cattle, of course). One day she sees a plane flies overhead. Oops. This is how Prince Kyber of the Asian Empire receives confirmation that Cam is alive and well. Where he fails with Bree when it comes to having a pawn in his games with the UCE, he decides to succeed with Cam. Only this time he has learned his lesson so he will not fall in love with Cam like he thought he did with Bree. So in order to avoid this fate, he declares that the woman must be kept away from him once he has her brought in to Beijing. And then he goes mad and insists that he and his trusted assistant will be the only ones to bring her in, under appropriate Rim Riders disguise, of course.

No, the Rim Riders have nothing to do with one's posterior or what some kinky people do to their posteriors. Why are there so many dirty-minded people out there?

I have to overlook this quite ridiculous contrivance on the author's part to bring her characters together and I'm not sure if I actually succeed in doing so. Cam and Kyber fall in love way too easily for my liking, with Ms Grant making it clear that any less-than-unsavory aspects of the way the Asian Empire is run are either beyond the control of Kyber or due to his ignorance, the last which Cam will gladly banish with her TLC. There is never any real sense of conflict when it comes to Kyber and Cam. They start out as adversaries of sorts, but Cam just keeps mouthing off to her "captors" (which will be Kyber and his buddy) and Kyber finds it cute and sassy. In this case, Kyber is an upright military man dressed in the furs of a big bad wolf. I don't think many readers will be fooled. Let me make this clear - I have no objections to Kyber and Cam as characters because they are intelligent (give and take some annoying concessions to the romance novel formula where the characters have to do some silly things to justify coming together). I do wish there is some element of uncertainty or suspense in the relationship.

But this lack of conflict may be a necessary flaw because Bree's story, a continuation from the end of The Legend Of Banzai Maguire, also takes up a significant chunk of the story. Now this part is great. Ms Grant does one thing I've never seen many (or is that any) futuristic author has ever done: she plunges her story into a turbulent conflict that is comparable to a decent science fiction sociopolitical action drama. Okay, maybe it's no Blade Runner but maybe it can give I, Robot a run for its money if The Scarlet Empress has another hundred pages to tell its story. The reason I say this is because for some reason only the author will know, she inexplicably skirts around actual scenes that could have made the story more actualized and gripping and instead relays these scenes from a careless "Oh, and so it happened like this and that, let's move on" kind of manner.

There are other problems that could have been fixed by more pages and more space for the story to develop. The Voice of Freedom, a key player in the story arc, is a poorly developed character and when this person appears in what is supposed to be a climatic scene, let's just say that the scene where Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker's big daddy comes off like an Oscar-winning scene in comparison. The villain is underdeveloped and his machinations are never made clear. Therefore, when the rebels win and all is well with the world now that it's one big democratic party again, I still find myself wondering why Bree Maguire becomes a symbol for freedom, what the rebels actually do to fight for their cause, and when Kyber will bring out his twelve children for Cam to play nanny to.

Don't worry about in-your-face American propaganda or anything, by the way. If you're the kind of reader who overreacts to every imaginable hot button issue in a romance novel like actually harmless political and social ideology, maybe this book isn't right for you. But Susan Grant doesn't preach. Sure, there is an eye-rolling scene or two involving the American flag and an exasperating tendency of the author to quote too many American politicians when it comes to democracy and world peace (hey, what about Gandhi, at least?), but the author isn't some irrational Ann Coulter wannabe hammering home her soapbox. The author's obvious stance against cloning may have some people shaking their heads while others may bare their teeth at the author's disapproval of the UCE launching an attack on the Empire of Asia to divert people's attention from the local political turmoil of UCE, but seriously, this is one book that both Michael Moore and Ann Coulter can have a peaceful dinner together to discuss it.

The Scarlet Empress - the whole 2176 series - should have been an ensemble story in every sense of that phrase. Characters from each book should have interacted, worked together, or fought each other instead of showing up at the epilogue of this book to remind me that they exist. Each book should have significantly advanced the story arc instead of just being some standalone, formulaic futuristic romance linked together by the same setting. More space should have been allocated to allow the reader to glimpse into the political wheels and chess games taking place between the bad guys and the good guys. Am I asking too much? Not really, I've read science fiction series that do a great job at being romantic as well as gripping and exciting in just three books. 2176 shouldn't have been just another conventional romance series where books are linked together in the most flimsy manner.

Susan Grant has the right idea and her two contributions to her brainchild series show a definite grasp of the concept. But with three books of varying quality taking up precious space between The Legend Of Banzai Maguire and The Scarlet Empress, the series go nowhere except to Typical Futuristic Land for so long and Ms Grant finally shows up to kick the party to life in this book, she can only do so much in one book. Because Ms Grant also tries to keep to some of the more formulaic conventions of the story (for a long time, Kyber and Cam are playing a silly game of masquerade with each other when they should have been doing something to advance the rebellion story arc or let Bree take over) in order to appeal to more conventional romance readers, this book has some priority screw-ups in that it allows silly games of the heart to take more prominence over restoring democracy and freedom to the whole world.

At the end of the day, I think it's great that a series like 2176 shows up and proves that it is possible to combine romance and futuristic elements without having the need to feed into virginity fetish, psychic waifishness, and other nonsense that rule the futuristic subgenre. But at the heart of its problem is an identity crisis: the authors that contribute to the series still try too hard to keep to a formulaic set of rules instead of allowing their creativity to rip unconstrained by the restrictions of the genre. (Since the subgenre is pretty much dead, that means the formula doesn't quite work anyway. Why try so hard to follow it then?)

The Scarlet Empress seems torn between trying to be a schmoopy love story of The King And I set in the future or an epic kick-ass story of freedom, liberty, and one woman's unexpected ascension to greatness. By revealing its hesitance to the reader, the story therefore fails to convince the reader to fully involve herself into it and experience the ride of her lifetime.

To sum up my thoughts on this book and the series on the whole, I must give kudos to Ms Grant, her editor, and the authors that participate in the series because no matter what, 2176 is a step in the right direction for the subgenre when it comes to boosting up the intelligence level of the subgenre and shedding the more ridiculous trappings of virginity, baby-making prophecies, space barbarian slaves, and idiot princesses on the run - things that currently cause the futuristic subgenre to be more corny than a typical Conan the Barbarian softporn. But things could have been better. I hope the upcoming Crimson City project will be a more cohesive success.

Rating: 83


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