25 June, 2013

'Bronze Gods' by A. A. Aguirre

So, in complete contrast to my reaction to Fade to Black, Bronze Gods surprised me by how much I loved it. I won't say I didn't expect to enjoy myself, because a crime fighting team in a steampunk universe with magic sounds like bona fide enjoyment material in my book. But I expected fluff-- a quick read, nothing heavy. I was pleasantly surprised to discover instead a wholly engaging read with characters that leapt off the page and a world I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of.

Normally I'm skeptical of co-authors unless I know both the authors separately first, which is probably what made me expect less of Bronze Gods. Of the husband-wife writing team, he's the worldbuilder, she's the character developer. But their styles are seamless and under their collective focus, Bronze Gods is strong both in setting and in cast. The world was vivid and real, from the city's different neighborhoods to the mythology surrounding Hy Breasil's founding, and every place had its own distinct flavor (I especially enjoyed the Lloyd-Weber-esque maze beneath the theater and Mikani's curio cabinet of a cottage). The steampunk was fun without being ostentatious-- no paragraph was wasted on describing the gears and bellows, as it were, yet somehow I never felt far removed from the elusive combination of mechanics and magic that lies at the heart of steampunk.

I do love a good murder mystery, and this one does what some of the best whodunits do: introduces its main characters through their arrival at the scene of a crime. Before I get into analysis, let me say that one of the signs of the Aguirres' mastery over their writing was that I had legitimate feelings about almost every character, even a handful of the ones who only appeared briefly. The story is so rich with color, texture and feeling, and the people so alive in it, that it was impossible not to care, not to care more as the story built.

And so, our dynamic duo. Janus Mikani is a seasoned detective with a sixth sense granted him by his generations-diminished fae blood: a type of empathy that gives him, quite literally, a nose for crime-solving. His partner Celeste Ritsuko is the first and only female detective in their division, and has had to fight for every scrap of acknowledgment she's ever gotten. It's a relief that Mikani treats her like a partner and not like a woman, and that their rapport and trust are unshakable. They work well together: he's a hot mess, she's a little prim, and they move so smoothly in each other's orbit that they don't even need to speak aloud to communicate. They're funny with each other, and obviously care a great deal for each other-- and the sexual tension that starts to develop between them over the course of the novel is both sweet and enticing.

In my review of Fade to Black I ranted against form romance, the kind that seems to be included because it's expected and not because it makes sense for the characters. This romance makes sense, and is slow moving enough that it feels real-- real enough that I was holding my breath during some of the scenes, not sure whether I wanted the heart-racing torment to end or go on indefinitely. “Just make out!” I cried, but came to my senses a moment later and reminded myself that it'll be better in the end if everyone-- Mikani, Ritsuko, and all their avid fans-- are one tinder strike away from exploding with the tension. But God, I hate waiting...

Another mark in the Aguirres' favor is that their female characters are outstanding. Aside from Ritsuko, there's Amelia, who like Ritsuko has chosen to live estranged from her family and pursue a career-- in her case, as a theater choreographer; and Saskia, one of Mikani's exes who deals in magic and heads up a controversial free trade organization in a market-controlled city. Amelia was one of my favorites-- feisty, brave and dangerously intelligent, not afraid to talk back to anyone who tries to tell her what to do, and very careful to preserve her own hard-won autonomy. It's always lovely to find fantasy where the women are given just as much development and screen time as the men, and in Bronze Gods they were also given a great deal of agency and power-- a surprising amount, given how easy it is in a Victorian pastiche setting to relegate them to the usual back seat role.

Unfortunately I can't say the same for a queer presence in the book. I'm beginning to resign myself to the lack of queer characters in urban fantasy-- maybe these last few books have just been a dry spell, but in Bronze Gods I didn't mark any mention of queer characters even in passing. Talking about the lack of queer characters is difficult in a book like this, where I found almost nothing wanting. The plot and characters were so skillfully drawn that I can't point to anything in particular and say “There, that person should've been queer,” but I will always come down on the side of wanting more visibility in genre fiction like this. There was no real reason not to give Electra a girlfriend, or one of the theater crew (or even one of the detectives!) a boyfriend. There is never any reason not to include queer characters, except that a lot of people still don't think of queerness as something they can mention casually without it co-opting the story. But until enough people do it, it won't be. Visibility, people. It's not that hard.

That's not to say I didn't sort of ship the two jerk detectives together. They deserved each other. And clearly they spent way too much time together for there not to be something going on. Just saying. ;)

As the first in a proposed trilogy, Bronze Gods was the first course in what I expect to be a very satisfying feast of fantasy. As always, I wish I had the galley of the sequel in my hands as we speak, but it seems I'll just have to reread this lovely novel and comb the library looking for Ann Aguirre's other works to tide me over.

But God, I hate waiting...

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