Blind Eye Books. $16.95, ISBN 978-1-935-56030-2
Historical Fantasy, 2014
Astrid Amara’s The Devil Lancer is an alternate history romance set during the Crimean War, a setting with a touch of dark fantasy element. Oh, and it’s about guy on guy, if you’re not aware of the sort of stories written by this author or published by this publisher. This story is more of a sweeping epic tale of action and adventure rather than romance, however, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
Captain Elliott Parish of Her Majesty’s 17th Lancers has plenty to think about. Sure, he could get his head blown off the next time he goes to meet the Russians, but in the meantime, he has to deal with incompetent officers who issue orders to men like him like these officers are spoiled kids playing at being soldiers. The men are freezing cold at night, for example, but they are forbidden from wearing capes because the commanding officer, from the comfort of his well-heated quarters, decide that those capes look too effeminate and hence would tarnish the image of the British army. And then there are outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.
Providing some distraction is the mysterious Cornet Ilyas Kovakin, a half-Russian all moody guy who may or may not be a spy. Elliott is asked to spy on Ilyas, but Ilyas’s actual secret goes beyond mere espionage: he harbors a “daemon” inside him, one that he struggles constantly with to avoid becoming monstrous brutes dedicated to spreading carnage in the name of an ancient dark deity – a fate that has seized hold of his own brother. These daemon-infected men are practically super soldiers of sorts, who also get involved in the war, and Elliott soon finds himself stuck in two wars – the Crimean War as well as the one between Ilyas and his brother.
One thing I have to say about The Devil Lancer – it’s a vastly entertaining and gripping read. My reaction to the author’s previous works blew hot and cold, so I’m surprised to find how easily this one grabs my attention and refuses to let go until the last page. The pacing is for the most part rock solid, the action scenes are well written enough to have me at the edge of my seat, and there is a nice balance between the quieter moments – at least, as quiet as it can be with war and disease all around these people – and the more dramatic ones. The story sends the two guys up and down the path of the plot like a frantic roller-coaster ride, and I find myself enjoying every minute of it. The fantasy elements are also, on the whole, well-woven into the setting.
The characters are drawn just enough to ensure that they are not flat, but not too deep. This isn’t a problem with me, as I’m enjoying the story as it is, and any extra characterization could only be icing on the cake. However, readers that prefer a strong romantic element in their story may end up feeling that the romance sometimes take a backseat to the action elements. I don’t disagree with them if that’s what they think. The Devil Lancer is more like those sweeping historical epic stories usually starring someone like Russell Crowe – the romance is just enough to make the main characters feel human, and in this case, it’s good enough for me.
However, The Devil Lancer stumbles now and then. I wish the author has built up and introduced Elliott’s role as that one bloke who may understand Ilyas’s problem better. As it is, Elliott starts out like a regular military guy who knows regular military stuff, so when it is thrown at my face that he can read the runes that reveal the daemonic nature of things and what not, my first reaction is, “Well, isn’t that convenient for the plot?” Elliott never fully recovers from this – even by the last page, a part of me still feels that there is something contrived about his character.
Also, the final chapter before the epilogue could have been done better. The author basically rushes through an important event like she’s desperately trying to finish things up because she needs to sit on a toilet bowl urgently. After the previous nerve-wrecking chapters, this particular chapter feels especially flat to the point of almost being a fatal flaw. It’s like dining on fine gourmet meals for several courses only to be served cold french fries for dessert – that particular course is enough to nearly ruin my entire otherwise divine mealtime experience. It’s the same with this story. That chapter is just awful in comparison to the rest of the book, so it’s a shame that it’s stuck towards the end to make sure that I close the book with a grimace on my face.
Still, there’s no denying that, for the most part, The Devil Lancer is an euphoric wartime tale that delivers the thrills and some chills in all the right ways.