2013 ended with a bang; a number of highly recommended books made it to the top of my list and gave a wonderful finish to the year. (Humans of New York, Zoo City, Alif the Unseen, Shipbreaker, and Stray Souls, in case you are wondering). The end of 2014 has been slightly more toward median range with books that entertained–but missed the wow factor. The Emperor’s Edge is one of those that just missed the high bar. While engaging and enjoyable, it suffered from a number of staple fantasy tropes.
After six years in the Imperial Guard, Amaranthe is still a corporal. Despite her professional attitude, her immaculate presentation, and her commitment to the guards, she’s never going to get promoted. Women have only recently been allowed to join the city law enforcement, and the glass ceiling is quite solid. When she and her partner are responding to a fire, Amaranthe notices a theft in progress. Her quick reaction gains the attention of the young Emperor. Later that night she is summoned to the rooms of the Emperor’s Advisor, Commander Hollowcrest (!), and given a top-secret mission: seduce and assassinate the assassin Sicarius. Despite ethical qualms, she realizes this could be her long-hoped for opportunity to advance, and reluctantly takes the mission. Before she leaves the palace, she runs into the Emperor again, and is struck by his boyish, charming demeanor. Amaranthe leaves for her mission and events quickly spiral out of all expectation.
The setting is vaguely steampunk, roughly equivalent to a London 19th century era. Workers cut blocks of ice to store for summer, but there are public trolleys for transportation, and the fire brigade uses self-propelled fire pumps. While there are pistols, they are reserved for military use only, and the guards themselves use swords. It is, we are told, a city of millions, although it seems much smaller, allowing for numerous coincidences at the same time allowing the troop the anonymity of the city when needed. Fantastical elements are eventually introduced, attributed to ‘mind-magic.’
In some ways, the plot feels like a structured role-playing game: each task Amaranthe completes inevitably leads her to the next, with just enough clues to see the logical–and perhaps trope-given–solution. Thus, while I didn’t predict the ultimate conclusion when I started, I didn’t find any step along the way particularly surprising. Entertaining, certainly, but hardly innovative. Themes in both personal independence and developing romance reminded me of The Blue Sword, in which a heroine learns to succeed in a man’s world.
Characterization is out of central casting, but like many movies, is still enjoyable. There’s a sloppy co-worker, a dark, brooding assassin, a drunk intellectual, a dandy of a swordsman, and a street sorcerer/thief. Amaranthe is definitely wearing Mary Sue perfume, but at least it was her brains and attitude that stood out. Oh, and her cleaning OCD (I’m not complaining; it’s an occupational hazard) and her comfortableness with her body (which did seem a little incongruent for the culture). Unfortunately, much like The Blue Sword, I’d note that it largely fails the Bechdel test, with Amaranthe’s band of miscreants formed of merry men.
In a charitable mood, I’d recommend it to fans of fast-paced heist stories such as Lies of Locke Lemora, only Amaranthe is far, far too moral to compare to Locke– although she does share traits of smooth talking, creativity and daring. Much like Locke, much of the entertainment comes out of the chicanery of the team of miscreants. I’d recommend it to fantasy fans looking for an adventure with an interesting female lead, but suggest that you be in the mood to accept predictable elements.