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I’m a big fan of Dan Abnett’s science fiction novels, and had high hopes for this semi-comedic alternative history fantasy novel. Sadly, while the novel had its moments, it wasn’t terribly good and I can’t really recommend it.

Some plot spoilers follow.

It’s set in an alternate history where Queen Elizabeth I of England married Philip II of Spain and created a global empire that persists to the year 2010. Oh and magic exists (under the control of the Church and practiced by hedge witches) and technology is mostly still Renaissance era. The explorer Sir Rupert Triumff has just discovered Australia and returned to London and quickly becomes embroiled in a plot by a group trying to kill him and (eventually) the queen using a mix of assassins and magic. In many ways, Abnett starts telling one story – that of Triumff’s mysterious return from his sea voyage – and ends up discarding it about halfway through to tell another story: that of the evil cabal’s magical threat to the nation. Why are these evil conspirators doing what they’re doing? I have no idea. Why do Triumff and Mother Grundy (a badass old lady who knows some magic) get involved? No idea. Because they were designated as the protagonists? Hopefully Abnett will provide some resolution in the sequel, but I have to admit that I’m not going to rush out and pick it up.

Abnett’s choice of flowery, pseudo-Elizabethan language takes a bit of getting used to. For example, the book opens with a five or so page description of a torrential downpour that is downright entertaining. At first I really enjoyed Abnett’s use of language – because it does offer a lot of comedic potential – but after a while I found it tiresome, as it slowed the pace of the action down even further and made it more difficult to follow. Also, if puns annoy you, then Abnett’s comedy will also lose some of its charm.

One of the other problems with the book is that many of the characters are referred to by: their real names; their titles; nicknames; and assumed names they take on for various nefarious or clandestine purposes. It’s a lot to keep track of, especially when it’s not entirely clear what everyone is up to, who’s working with/against whom, and exactly what the heck is going on. Abnett never really manages to establish the setting and characters’ backgrounds, and information about it only comes in dribs and drabs. One more draft with an emphasis on increasing clarity of the plot and characters’ motivations and identities would have helped a great deal.

I give the book 2.5 stars out of 5, but I wanted to give it a lot more than that. Dan Abnett is a great writer, and there were some fun aspects to this story, but I was alternatively bored and confused between the good bits. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great by any means. Not the author’s finest work, though I still whole-heartily recommend all his Eisenhorn, Ravenor, and Gaunt’s Ghosts work. Recommended for Abnett fans who are willing to give this one more time and attention than I was.

Buy the book on Amazon

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers