(Includes possibly triggery discussion of sexual abuse, as well as minor spoilers for the first few pages of the sequel, but nothing that wasn't deeply implied by the last few pages of this book.)
In short: I enjoyed the first half of the book and the initial world-building, was immensely put off by some of the character development mid-range, and the WTFery at the end was so immense as to almost bump this up a star for sheer ballsiness.
Before I get to the bits I did like (or at least boggle at), let's get one thing immensely clear that I'm not sure the author does: kinky sex does not equal rape. Messing about with power dynamics in the bedroom does not equal rape. A woman taking an active role in sex does not equal rape. Rape equals rape. Rape equals someone saying no. Rape equals two
people saying no. Mind-wiping the participants does not make it not rape. And I think this book was trying very hard to convince me that the heroine, when under the influence of magic, was into kinky, power-dynamic-exchanging, woman-in-control sex. No. The magic does not make the heroine into a top.
Instead, the heroine, when under the influence of magic, browbeats a male lover into sex with very dubious consent, then goes home, repeatedly rapes a chamber maid, leaves her tied up overnight while she is weeping and saying no
, then uses her mind mojo to make her male lover rape the chamber made and convince both the guy and the maid that they liked it, then wipes their memory. And then continues to use her mind mojo to violate people both mentally and physically for the rest of the book.
If the heroine is supposed to be edgy and ambiguous but you still want me to root for her? This is not the way to do it.
I was hoping that the end would make the author's stance on the heroine's actions more clear - some sign that the author acknowledges that her actions are genuinely reprehensible
, no matter how horrible the heroine's upbringing and training were, and that the reprehensibility of her actions have some sort of consequence to her character. But nope. Not really. Instead we got SPACE DRAGONS.
It's not the extensive, explicit sex. I actually quite liked it, as up until Little Miss Rapey McRaperson started hog-tying chamber maids and mind-controlling anyone she could get her hands on, the sex fit quite naturally in the story. It's one of the few books I've read about spies and fantasy-world political intrigue that has exactly
as much sex as it should. There's dubious consent left and right, everyone seems to be led around by their pants, and it's all laid out in really effective detail.
The problem is not the sex. The problem is not even really the dubious consent (because how much consent did Belinda really have when sleeping with Gregori and Viktor?). The problem is the outright denial
of consent and Belinda/Beatrice/whoever's application of brute physical and mental force to override that lack of consent. The problem is that it is not clear to me, from this book, that the author recognizes that difference.
All that (and that is a lot) aside, there were bits that I genuinely enjoyed about this book. I'm a sucker for an alternate history/universe, and I'm totally a sucker for Elizabethan European history (alternate or otherwise). Throw in a little spy action, a little magic, a little exploration of the role of women in power, a bisexual heroine, and I'm pretty much sold. It was a ripping good read with a heroine of ambiguous morality, with a slew of characters who weren't exactly nice
but who were interesting to read about.
(The problem, of course, being when she trips over from ambiguous to reprehensible. What bothers me is that I don't see any particular difference in the way the author portrays the for-god-and-country! ambiguous actions and the I'm-drunk-on-magic-and-enjoy-the-sounds-of-her-begging-me-to-stop actions.)
So, yeah. Enjoyed it, enjoyed it, what-is-happening-does-the-author-know-what's-going-on-OMG, hasty resolution of a million plot threads and then bam! SPACE DRAGONS. For serious. Our heroine's father, not!Francis Drake, is actually an alien being that looks remarkably like a dragon, and the magic may in fact be special alien powers. Sci fi, fantasy, alternate history? You decide!
I enjoy a good twist, but I enjoy the twist even more when it's actually relevant to the rest of the novel. I feel like Murphy had a perfectly good (if rapey) alternate history fantasy novel going, and unless the sequel convinces me otherwise, there is absolutely no reason
to suddenly make the politics and intrigue of not!Europe all about the millenias-long survival quest of SPACE DRAGONS.
Seriously. Draaaaaaaaagons iiiiiiiiiin spaaaaaaaaaaace (and in Elizabethan ruffs). I don't even know what to do with that.
(Oh, and the author also gets a point for the Les Miserables (the musical) shout-out. A character named Marius walks into a bar where all his friends are hanging out, and one of the buddies actually says
'Is Marius in love at last?' I will fully admit to snortgiggling at that.)