I'm a huge fan of Rob J. Hayes' writing. His The Ties That Bind and Best Laid Plans series are some of the best grimdark fantasy which has come out in the past few years. So, when I heard he was working on a steampunk series, I was intrigued and immediately picked up a copy.
The setting of the novel was surprising as it's a fantasy version of Regency Europe. It avoids the usual Medieval fantasy setting as well as the Hyborian Age mish-mash so common in fantasy but is also a good century or two before steampunk is usually popularized. England and France-like nations are set against one another with airships on one side as well as spellcasters on the others. The spellcasters, unfortunately, have the advantage and it's kept Sassaile (England) from conquering its neighbor Arkland (France).
Jacques Revou and Isabel de Rosier are a pair of extraordinarily skilled con men and cart burglars who possess Lupin the Third levels of ability to bullshit their way out of situations. Jacques is a alchemist of no small skill and capable of creating any number of devices or effects to assist their cons while Isabel is a master of disguise as long as said disguise is someone gorgeous. They're deeply in love and play off each other in a hilarious style, even as they're nearing retirement despite being in the prime of their lives.
The lovers-in-crime hit a brick wall, though, when Sassaile's spymaster proceeds to confiscate their accumulated fortune and dragoons them into the secret service. The protagonists HATE this even as they're forced to become spies in the Arkland court with the knowledge they're probably going to be executed no matter how well they do. What follows is a complicated story about the couple trying to play their masters against the nation they're spying on which wants to execute them while looking for an out. It all ends with an amazing airship story, frustrated love, and a bunch of humorous twists.
The book is not remotely like his other series, lacking the gruesome murder of moral ambiguity which made that story so good. Indeed, it may be a little too much on the lighthearted side for me. Despite this, I enjoyed it as an adventure story and the humor kept it a breezy read from start to finish. I would have appreciated some more moral ambiguity and, honestly, I was on Renard's side against the Queen but that didn't reduce my enjoyment factor one bit.
Isabel and Jacques have great chemistry that makes you genuinely want to root for the couple. Indeed, it's kind of depressing to realize they may be one of five happily married couples in all of fantasy which continue to adventure rather than existing as a "happily ever after." I like the fact neither of them have an advantage over the other in the common sense department and have both distinct areas of expertise that play off the other. Very few authors get this sort of proper party balance, so to speak, which makes one character usually tower over the other. These two play off one another well and it makes them interesting. They're also prone to making mistakes and having to deal with the consequences in a manner that is usually more fun than their if their already hilarious plans had gone off without a hitch.
This is a good novel for anyone who wants to enter into the steampunk setting and works well as a non-traditional fantasy novel. It's certainly well-worth the money and I'm surprised to see such range in any author as normally you wouldn't expect someone who did such dark fiction as The Colour of Vengeance to do something as relentlessly cheerful. I think the books are something akin to a brighter Gentleman Bastards and would recommend them to fans of Scott Lynch. In fact, I may like these two more than the Gentleman Bastards because not only is there a bit more estrogen in the group but they aren't as super-competent as Locke and Jean.
In conclusion, I recommend this book all round and don't have any real complaints about it. I've bought the second book in the series and hope to get to it immediately. It may not be the best book I've ever read but it's simply FUN and that goes a long way. Would the series be a bit better if the stakes were higher and written darker? I don't know but I will say that I absolutely love the work as is.
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