(review originally posted on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com)
Unsurprisingly, I read this book for calico_reaction's Dare for the month of March. I don't know what it is with this woman, but she keeps picking books that I end up *really* liking. Seriously, this book is fun, and I had such an enjoyable time reading it. Of course, I have a few nitpicks which I'll go over in a bit, but overall, this book was solid.
All right, so first off: this book has a lot going on. It's got fantasy, it's got steampunk, it's got alternate history stuff going on and it's also got a healthy dose of romance AND a bit of wester. While I was intrigued about a blend of all these elements, I was also a little skeptical. Sometimes authors try to incorporate too many popular genres into one book, and the book sometimes ends up lacking focus because of this. I never really got that sense from this book. The fantasy was interesting, with the different branches of magic that people could practice, and the politics behind them all were believable. The steampunk was a little lacking, save for one scene in particular, but it was implemented into the world-building well enough that it didn't feel out of place, or like it was just clumped into the novel for no apparent reason. The romance was what I was most worried about because I'm a superrrr picky romance reader. I get annoyed with it fairly easily, and it takes some really deft writing for romantic scenes to get my heart thumping (I'm usually indifferent to those kinds of things, which is probably why I don't read straight up romance.) Overall, I thought the romance was well done, except for one or two things while I'll mention shortly. It wasn't an element that over-powered the story though; like the steampunk aspect of the novel, the romance never felt out of place, or like it was implemented in the novel simply to appeal to a broader audience.
Now, the one thing that *did* bother me a little bit about the romance was that it pulled the whole "love-interests-initially-hate-each-other-but-are-forced-to-go-on-a-journey-together-and-by-overcoming-insurmountable-odds-together-they-fall-in-love". Now don't get me wrong.. this approach is infinitely better than insta-love and that kind of thing, but it's something I see so often that it makes me roll my eyes a bit, because it's so obvious that they're being set up as a romantic couple. I think it didn't help that Emily could be really petulant regarding anything Stanton did, which irked me at times as well.
That brings me to my next point: the characters. I actually really like what Hobson did here. These characters are seriously flawed. Emily's racist (initially), stubborn (sometimes annoyingly so) and complains about Stanton constantly, sometimes when it was really uncalled for. Stanton is snobby, has a holier-than-thou attitude, and by the end of the novel, you find out that he's actually a bit of a failure, and a coward. However, over the course of the novel, Emily eases up on the racism and on complaining about Stanton too, but at a natural pace, so that it felt like it was actually part of her character. Also, she does have many redeeming qualities. Her motivations get her into sticky situations, but she's always ready to rectify them, and in the end, a lot of the things she does is for the well-being of those she scares about. She's also head strong and goes for something when she wants it, which is admirable. Same with Stanton: he slowly stops being such a dick and I learned to like him. It was refreshing to see two heroes who aren't perfect without being completely annoying. They did get to me at times, but again, it didn't deter the reading experience; it actually fleshed out the characters.
The story moves at a brisk pace, and while there was a bit of info-dumping (Emily is a backwater Witch, so almost everything needs to be explained to her for her sake as well as the readers) it was never A LOT of info-dumping all at once. It was spread nicely. Also, the little info-dumps were interesting, so I ended up not really caring that they were info-dumpy in the first place. Hobson also has a nice writing style that has a bit of wit without trying too hard to be funny, and had an authentic feel to it; it had a bit of an "older" voice, if that makes sense? Anyway, I really liked it, and it was very easy and pleasing to read.
Now this is totally random, but I need to make this nitpick as well: How the hell did Emily not figure out that Stanton needed some effing food during the time they were on the train? She knew at that point that he was Burned and needed constant nourishment, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out that he wasn't waking up because of lack of nourishment? Come ON woman! But I guess it needed to be like that so that Emily would end up giving him the concoction that Rose brews up, which leads to a bunch of other stuff. So essentially, Hobson had to make Emily a little stupid to move some plot elements forward, which bugs me with books in general. But oh well.
I was also very glad that this book didn't end on a cliff-hanger and that all the plot lines (save for one) were tied up neatly. The one aforementioned plot line looks like it will be focused on more in the second installment, and I'm a little anxious to see how that plays out. Lucky for me I bought the second book already. ;)
Final Verdict: If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be FUN. I really enjoyed reading this, and it was light without being fluffy. It had very, very flawed characters, but who still somehow end up being lovable and a fast-paced story that never really lags. The lore behind the fantasy element of the story was really fascinating; Hobson has created an interesting magic system. The romance was well done and didn't feel like it was inserted to solely cater to romance fans: I bought into it, and while Emily and Stanton's attitudes towards each other irritated me at first, it grew into something quite endearing. Overall, it's something I would definitely recommend to almost anyone (unless they REALLY hate genre fiction). I liked it enough to I went out and bought both a copy of the book for myself (the one I read I borrowed from someone else) and the sequel, which we just received at the store I work at not too long ago. I won't be reading the sequel right away, but I'm quite excited to getting around to it. :)