There’s a dark power rising again. There are omens and portents. There is war in the once peaceful kingdoms. The stage is set for a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Katherine, a princess who wants to be a warrior, is called to play a pivotal role in the coming struggle.
So far, so standard. This is a book with a lot of fantasy tropes. There are quests, wise mentors, mysterious monks, oathsworn knights, callow heroes, and all the other trappings of fantasy at its most expected.
And I find this all very odd. The thing is, typical fantasy is no longer typical. Burnished armour and banners snapping in the breeze have been replaced with mud and practical brawling. Noble heroes and wise mentors have been replaced by compromising mavericks and scratching drunks. Fantasy, as a whole, is gritty and filled with shades of grey. Everyone is now writing things that break the mould, to the extent that the mould doesn’t really exist anymore. Yet here it is – Azinger has written a book which plays all the tropes straight.
It’s definitely a departure from the new norm, and a surprising one. A throwback, if you will, to when fantasy was uncomplicated and followed all the rules. I don’t mind that, to be honest – I get a little tired of every character being stubbly and morally flexible. In some ways, it’s refreshing to read open, direct fantasy again.
With that said, The Steel Queen takes it too far, with some of the clumsy tropes that really should have been retired (and not picked back up) ages ago. Civilisations in the book are one-dimensional; there’s a kingdom of sword knights, and one of archers. There’s a kingdom of rabid religious people, and a secret woodland state of cat-people. Each society has one noticeable feature. That’s clumsy, typical of fantasy at a certain period, and rather too obvious.
The story is told from multiple perspectives – some good, some evil. This does go some way to lessen the overall air of old-fashioned fantasy, and helps to show the events of the book in a larger context – you get a sense of a world which, however creakily, does move and adapt, rather than just being a static backdrop to the hero’s quest.
By far the largest departure from the mould that The Steel Queen so comfortably inhabits is the sex. There’s a longer post that needs to be written on the topic, but generally books fall into separate levels of explicitness. Most books go for the “fade to black” route, some go for “burning kisses” and “unaccustomed heat flooded her”. Modern romances (and a lot of urban fantasy) tend to be even more direct – that’s where you get detailed descriptions and over-use of “warm”, “thrust”, and “pleasure”.
Very few books, though, spend that much time discussing the actual mechanics involved, particularly fluids. Sex in fiction is passionate, but not exactly dripping with anything. Azinger does not take this route. The Steel Queen is a step above most fantasy in terms of sexual content – there’s quite a lot of sex, a surprising amount of masturbation, and it’s all very messy. It’s odd, really – A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, contains an awful lot of sex, but it’s never that organic; there’s no real reason for the convention that I can see, but mentioning the actual liquids involved in sex shoots books way up the scale from “tame” to “hide from children and elderly relatives”.
Mention should be made of the fact that this is the first book of the series, and it is a book that needs its series – plot lines aren’t wrapped up, but left dangling enticingly for the next book(s) to explore. By the end, a whole host of plots and plans are in motion, but nothing directly has been resolved. All the arcs are continuing – there’s no defeated monster, no pause for breath. In a sense, book one is a prologue for the rest of the Silk and Steel saga.
I found myself, as I read this book, waiting for a trick, a reveal that never came. There’s magic and fighting and plotting and monsters – all the elements of fantasy – but they aren’t mixed or altered. Again, Azinger plays it straight. Fantasy isn’t that simple anymore; there should be complexities and depth.
The Steel Queen is a throwback, a coelacanth of fantasy that the rest of the world has evolved beyond. Back when such tropes were ubiquitous, when fantasy didn’t aim (however inaccurately) for depth and sophistication, this book would probably have done very well. Nowadays, books need a little more.