TLDR: ….here’s the thing: books rate differently depending on what genre they are—and I can’t decide what genre this book is.
If it’s a romance, it’s a solid 5/5: it has a romance in the A-plot, but it also has an actual A-plot that doesn’t completely fall apart once the main pair start sleeping together.
If it’s a standard pseudo-medieval fantasy, it’s a 3/5: it has warlords who seem genuinely dangerous and leaders who lay plans and think ahead, act like leaders rather than 20th-century office workers.
If it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller, it’s a 2/5…because, damnit, that’s the setting, and therefore that’s the genre by default, right? But it kept slipping into stupid romance-novel cliches, or dumb fantasy cliches, or dumb Hollywood cliches, and insulting its own intelligence in the process.
Pros/Cons: My likes and problems with this book are the same as with the Kate Daniels series: it’s at its best when it focuses on the worldbuilding and characterization….and yet it resolutely doesn’t play to its strengths and eventually just gives up and coasts on a smooth lane of cliche.
Plot: Hugh d’Ambray, after failing once too many times at doing whatever he was supposed to do to Kate in the previous series (still not sure about that, and, it seems, so is Hugh), was placed on administrative leave by his ex-boss Roland (an evil demigod.) Hugh proceeds to get very drunk. Ex-boss has also decided to thin out those among his men who might be more personally loyal to Hugh than to him. These eventually get back with Hugh and demand he do something about it. So: Hugh has a small army, but no home base, no supplies, allies, or resources. Elara, leader of The Departed (no, they don’t explain it either), has a castle, farmlands, and four thousand people to protect….but somehow doesn’t have anyone to do the protecting. She and Hugh contract a marriage alliance. They also immediately fall in hate with each other (rather strangely, because there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it….other than The Romance Plot Requires It), and spend the rest of the book bickering until they finally fall into bed.
Why does The Bailey of The Departed need protecting? Because Roland’s new warlord, Landon Nez, is expanding his territory throughout the Midwest, and small magical communities like Elara’s are his direct targets. So Hugh must fortify Bailey (his battle for use of the bulldozers is one of the most relatable…*wince*…parts) and prepare for the coming fight. Meanwhile, there’s also supernatural weirdos in strange armor systematically attacking and slaughtering the nearby settlements…who also happen to be anti-magic bigots who won’t accept the help of Them Thar Dad-gum Magical Folk, You Can’t Trust ‘Em None (Throw Some Rocks, That’ll Learn ‘Em To Stay Away.) I’m being entierly serious.
So, worldbuilding: I really liked these bits. Like, how do you dig a seventy-five by ten foot moat and make it waterfast? Well, bulldozers, and then line it with concrete. But where are you going to get the volcanic ash for the Roman concrete? And who’s paying for the fuel? And your precious moat is lower priority than our sewer system, and the concrete isn’t setting right so did you waste our money? And what, oh, you want generators now? You’re pulling people off the maintenance crew now? Where are we going to get the fuel for the generators and what if we need those men for the gardens? Yep. YYYYYUP. (I recounted this part to one of the maintenance leads at my first job. He wanted to know what the book was and why the author was mocking him.)
But then for the main conflict they use the laziest device ever: the keystone army that dissolves when you kill the queen. The authors needed a Danger to provide exciting action sequences, but needed it not to be too difficult, since the heroes have limited options and resources. Instead of spending some brainpower to come up with a suitable threat–say, roving band of warlocks from Canada; or a nearby settlement that decides Bailey is now a threat and wants to cripple them preemptively; or The Pack, or the IRS, or something–we get mind-controlled Neanderthals, from nowhere, without context, any kind of buildup or backstory, nothing. BORING. BOOOOOORING. Oh, and can you guess that once you take down the queen the rest of the threat stops in its tracks? SUUUUUPER BORING. Ugh.
Characters: I have better things to say about the characters. All two and a half of them.
Hugh has to play a double role of warlord and romantic hero; but here’s the thing. A warlord isn’t going to be a hard bastard all the time; he has to have charisma, he has to demonstrate intelligence, and he has to be able to sweet-talk or reassure the people he can’t intimidate. I’d actually say that they hit the mark with this: Hugh’s code-switching is done perfectly, and you get a man whom men will trust immediately. Also dogs and kids. (Although the little girl was a bit of an overkill). And, given his powerset–he’s an immensely strong healer, as well as a master swordsman–he’s fun to watch in a fight…theoretically. There aren’t really as many good fight scenes as there ought to be. (Post apocalypse? Fights. Thriller? Fights. Romance novel? No fights.) As far as his character arc, it’s nothing new; we know he’s going to snap out of his drunken funk just as surely as we know he’s going to shape up into the man our heroine can sleep with; and we know he’s going to protect the Bailey and not back down. This isn’t a problem. Tropes are tools, and as long as they are used right–as they are here–it’s satisfying to read.
Elara Harper is also a pretty good heroine: a thoughtful, cunning leader who values life despite the rumor that her people engage in human sacrifice and that she’s the host of some kind of eldritch abomination from the elder days that not even Roland wants to cross…and even with this, she’s hampered by, again, the romance-genre tropes. Instant dislike to her new husband? Check. (I even re-read the scene again. There really is no reason for them both to start breaking out the insults while in the middle of negotiating for their people’s lives). “Fiery” personality that engages in charged bickering with her significant other? Check. Goes to extra lengths to keep him off because she’s really attracted? Check. Actually very soft-hearted and caring underneath? Check. Is any of this a problem? No; tropes are tools. These are just a little more obvious than they should be, and I noticed them a little easier.
Minor characters, such as boisterous, blunt berserker-bro Bale (I wonder if that is exactly what the author’s notes say about him) and the deaf-mute advisor girl who communicates in sign language (because she’s a banshee), remain minor but shouldn’t have. This is where the romance-genre tropes work against the book, by focusing things too much on the main duo rather than letting others get time in the limelight.
Action: is OK. My current gold standard for action writing is Larry Correia’s stuff. Hugh being someone who can heal himself or even his opponent as he fights is something that might come in handy for writing a really brutal fight scene….yeah, no. Well, again; if we call this a romance novel and not a post-apocalyptic thriller, then this isn’t a problem. (WHAT GENRE IS THIS BOOK?! It’s so good when it’s not a romance!)
The other problem is the use of that the really stupid Hollywood cliche “only the hero can do anything heroic on-camera.” It’s a cliche that shouldn’t be here, just by the book’s own logic.–there’s quite a bit of setup of how Hugh’s Iron Dogs work, are disciplined and competent…and should be able to do things like send out patrols and investigate suspicious happenings and report back to their boss, who is having dinner with some bigwigs and should have no reason whatsoever to be wandering around outside, getting in a fight with random monster scouts.
I will favorably mention one scene I thought particularly good: it’s simple, no frills, no magic, nothing fancy…just a child, a monster, a woman, and a shotgun, in a room.
Humor: is used deftly. “You’re handsome, a big, imposing figure of a man, and um…” Lamar scrounged for some words. “And they’re desperate.” Even the slap-slap-kiss romantic bickering is more amusing than annoying. Oh, and the post-apocalyptic wedding having an official DJ, photographer, and videographer? Pretty good. Preparing to host a self-proclaimed Viking with “one of those big barrels filled with beer, trust me, it works every time?” Hilarious. Like I said, the worldbuilding is one of the strengths of this book, and that includes throwing in funny, as well as verisimilitudinous, details whenever you can. If only the authors had done it more.
In conclusion: I liked this book enough to read it in one sitting, write 1500-odd words about it, and, four years later, have not read the next one and never will unless someone pays me.
Rated: What genre is it?! Really!