There’s some interesting things going on in this book, but ultimately it is not my thing. I’ll admit a slight bias here in that I have never liked a book where the narrative and prose take a back seat to the magic system. I’d happily play an RPG set in the Powder Mage universe, but I’m not sure I’ll read another Powder Mage novel. If you are a person who loves hard magic fantasy then you may get more out of this than I did.
Overall, I think the plot and the characters are underwritten. There comes a point in the book where we have an “all is lost” moment, and I belatedly realized that I was now supposed to be worried about the characters. I don’t feel like I really know most of the key characters. They all seemed very expendable to me. I wouldn’t be sad or surprised if any of the main cast died. None of the characters really have an arc or learn anything. The story definitely took a backseat to the D&D module portion of the book that added the Powder Mage, Privileged, and Knacked classes to the game.
If that were the only problem though, I’d say that this was a fun ride that wasn’t really my thing and move on with my life. Unfortunately there’s a few other weird problems.
I was/am hesitant to even give this book a positive rating because of the weird detour the book takes into adult men sexualizing underage girls. Ka-Poel is described at the beginning of the book as looking like she is 15-years old. She is frequently mistaken for a boy. Ka-Poel owes a life debt to Taniel, who treats her more like a daughter or a much younger sister. That is until about 350-pages into the book when, out of absolutely no where, the book decides to firmly establish that Taniel is 22, and Ka-Poel is 19. And having established that in the most clumsy, awkward, probably-at-the-insistence-of-an-editor way possible…we have a budding romance. Ka-Poel and Taniel have zero romantic chemistry. Taniel seems interested in Ka-Poel largely because she’s interested in him, also he’s coked out of his mind 24/7.
Then in the next chapter or so they take us to some weird Jeffery Epstein estate where one of the girls in a see-through dress is observed to be “about 16 years old.” This is at least depicted as an immoral thing, but it’s also depicted as being highly tempting. Why mention her age at all? If you felt the need to mention it, why did you decide to make her “about 16”? I’m honestly not sure if this was intended to show that the girl was being exploited, or to make her seem more tempting. The characters gawking at her don’t seem to want to help her, or feel bad for her, so I’m left to assume this author just thinks teen girls are hot. Before anyone jumps in to say that it’s a fantasy and that people married younger in olden times, I’ll just add that this is a book where people snort gunpowder for superpowers almost every other paragraph, and trade unions are welcomed by rich people for their productivity. Historical immersion wasn’t a priority, here.
It’s also mentioned that “especially the male” Privileged have intense sexual appetites and have taken to the custom of keeping harems. This was a big eye-rolling moment for me. It read to me as very forced and cringe. Speaking of cringe, the whole Vlora thing where Taniel murders a man he caught her sleeping with in front of her and then she begs him to forgive her. That…seemed like wish fulfillment.
There are things I liked about the book. The last dozen chapters or so were pretty fun. I did like the mystery surrounding the predeii and the nature of the gods. I’m interested in knowing how the gods and the Privileged are connected. I’m also team Mihali. I enjoyed everything with him.
If you’re into hard magic fantasy and you can tolerate some of the more bizarre “romantic” choices then this is probably a solid B+. If you have a real thing for that “flintlock” fantasy as well then I can see how some people are giving it an A.
If you’re just here for a good fantasy story, though, there’s a lot of books out there that do it a lot better.