There are some things I do understand, very thoroughly. My body is my own. The Concordia is my own. And I will do as I please with both.

Firebrand is a Fantasy/Steampunk Romance novel that has just made the Tiptree Award’s Honor list. The Tiptree Award is an annual prize for SciFi and Fantasy with the intention to reward works that expand our understanding of gender. Well, this bombastic combination of Fantasy/Steampunk, Romance AND gender conversation has “Ana” written all over it.

After reading it though, I find myself with mixed feelings.     

When her mother dies, widow Kadia Warner inherits the Concordia, an airship that the Emperor wants for himself (and if he can bed Kadia in the bargain, all the better). Kadia is adamant that the ship and her body remain her own and flees to the neighbouring Duchy of Coranza—the one place that still remains free of the ever-growing Empire. There, she will find herself falling for its Duke as she tries to keep the Emperor’s unwanted attentions at bay.  

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On the one hand, Firebrand is a fun romp, following Kadia’s adventures, and there are good reasons for the book to be on the Tiptree list. Kadia is a well-developed lead, who is honest about her desires and has no qualms about it. She is adventurous in bed, has taken lovers in between her two unhappy marriages and is keen to start a sexual relationship with John, the Duke of Coranza (their sexytimes are fun and hot). The book has a multitude of female characters in positions of power that are typically presented as “male” professions (pilots, lawyers, engineers) and at the same time makes astute observations about gender inequalities and double standards applied to men and women. At one point, she argues with John about how, if he had been the one to own Concordia, the Emperor would have an entirely different strategy:

“I think he’d take you gambling and throw a parade for you in the streets of New Trinovantium, and when he tried to steal your airship he’d argue to himself that all’s fair when you’re fighting a worthy equal.” My eyes feel hot and itchy with tears, but I’m too angry to cry. “Whereas he calls me my sweet delight and threatens me.”

On the other hand, the story is kind of fleeting and many of its storylines, underdeveloped and even, possibly problematic. Firebrand is what I’d call Wallpaper Fantasy: Its fantastical elements are never truly explored in any depth. Its “Steampunk” elements—like its “clockwork” mechanisms—are mostly supernatural and magic rather than scientific and therefore Not Really Steampunk (in my not-so-humble opinion).  Given how the Emperor is spreading his tentacles all over, there are questions of race, colonization and oppression that are merely glossed over and never truly addressed. 

The emphasis and focus here is definitely on the romance between Kadia and John. But the extent to which one can suspend disbelief and not ask questions about setting and background when reading a Romance novel is directly related to whether the romance works or not.

The problem here is that Firebrand doesn’t work as a full-fledged romance either. The hero is of the Nice and Hot variety (as opposed to the antagonist who is Hot but Not Nice) and is a cardboard cut-out Romance Hero with a Sad Past. I know close to nothing about him beyond the fact that he is Nice and Hot and I have no idea why the heroine has fallen in love with him so fast. The vast majority of romance novels are actually written in third person and the male point of view makes up for half the narrative—I am not necessarily bemoaning the lack of a hero point of view or the first person narrative here, but I do regret that John was not nearly as developed as Kadia. Part of me thinks this is okay because Kadia is awesome on her own. But because the romance takes up so much of the story, I wish I had enjoyed this side of the novel more.

The most problematic thing for me is how the novel ends with the hero saving the day and everybody hand-waving all of the emperor’s ignominious actions throughout the book (and throughout the history within the world) including kidnapping, abusing and attempting to rape the heroine. But this is all okay because he apologizes and he might actually have a Heart of Gold and that’s it: They all live happily ever after. I am actually not entirely sure that the ending doesn’t in fact neutralize all of the gender observations the novel had made previously.

To sum up: fabulous heroine, great female characters and some genuinely good gender talk. Not so good everything else.

In Book Smugglerish, a lukewarm 5 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.