Karen Azinger's The Steel Queen is the first book of The Silk & Steel Saga. It's also the author's debut book (and it's a surprisingly good debut book). I'm usually a bit skeptic about the quality of self-published fantasy books, because I've read some horrible books, but The Steel Queen was a pleasant and welcome surprise. It was excellent entertainment and there weren't any dull moments.
Here's a bit of information about the world and some of the characters (I'll try to avoid too many spoilers):
The events of The Steel Queen take place in a medieval fantasy world. The book follows the lives and adventures of different characters in the kingdoms of Erdhe. The Kingdoms of Erdhe are about to be plunged into darkness by the forces of darkness.
The world is divided into different kingdoms and areas (Castlegard, Lanverness, Navarre etc) and each area has its own problems. The Castlegard domain fights against the evil of the Mordant while other areas fight against different kind of enemies, but the Mordant is a big threat to all areas. Castlegard is ruled by a king and is known for the Octagon Knights, who stand against the threat of the Mordant. Lanverness is a wealthy kingdom and is ruled by a queen.
Important characters include Kath, Blaine, Liandra and Steffan (I'll concentrate on these four characters in this review, because I don't want to write too many spoilers), but there are also several other characters, which help the story move along nicely and add depth to the story. To be honest, I was a bit surprised by the amount of characters, because I didn't expect to read about so many different characters. All the characters are well balanced and the author gives them room to grow, which is nice, and I'm sure that the characters will continue to grow in the sequels.
Kath is a young woman, who wants to be a fighter. Although his father wants her to be a normal young woman, she rebels against her father and learns to fight with weapons.
Blaine is a young man, who has trouble accepting that he's been given a rare blue sword, which is usually given only to heroes. He doesn't understand why he's been given the sword, because he hasn't done anything special (he feels that he isn't worthy of the sword). He's a knight of the Octagon.
Liandra is an interesting character, because she's a strong and intelligent woman, who knows what she wants. Because she's a ruler in a male-dominated court, she must be strong and she must use all her skills to stay in power (she uses her good looks, intelligence and spies in order to stay in power).
Steffan is a man, who's interested in the power of the Dark Lord. He wants to become a powerful man and he's willing to sacrifice anything to get what he wants. He even offers his soul to the Dark Lord. What he gets in exchange for his soul is good luck, which he uses to further the Dark Lord's reign in the kingdoms.
The Steel Queen is more complex than several other new fantasy books, because Karen Azinger has created an interesting world and a thrilling story. The complex and interwoven plot is handled excellently and it develops nicely over the course of the book. I've read several debut fantasy books and I've often been annoyed by the lack of effort from the author, but not in this case, because Karen Azinger has written an effortlessly flowing story, which leaves the reader wanting more. This is a book, which can cause its reader a temporary "just one more page syndrome".
Karen Azinger handles politics, mysticism and religious things fluently and doesn't preach about things (she explores different themes in an interesting way and lets the readers make their own opinions about certain things). The religious, mystical and political events added depth to the story and made the world a believable place.
The Steel Queen contains several adult scenes (sex, sexual references and violence), which will fascinate hardcore fantasy readers. I enjoyed reading about the human sacrifices and other similar things (it was interesting to read about the religion of the Flame God and how heretics were sacrificed to the flames). These violent scenes were thrilling and added harshness to the story. I also enjoyed reading about the stunningly beautiful priestess who used and enjoyed her sexuality shamelessly. It was also interesting to read about Steffan's attempt to lure Liandra's son under his influence.
One of the themes in this book is a woman's place in a man's world. Each of the female characters is different, and in order to achieve success, each of them uses her powers differently (for example, Liandra is a brilliant strategist and Kath is a good fighter). This feels fresh, because it's interesting to read about strong and intelligent female characters instead of typical male characters who fight against evil enemies without any kind of intelligence.
Another important theme is honour, because the Octagon Knights are honourable knights and they're expected to follow the old ways. Some of these knights want to abandon the old ways, because times are changing, but not all of them. Honour and valour are important things to knights and they're also important to Blaine, because he ponders what it means to be a knight.
Religion is also an important theme, because the author explores how dangerous and destructive religious zealotry can be. The religion of the Flame God is shown as a threat: the author lets her readers see how heretics are treated and how much fear the worshippers and cult members can cause among normal people.
The story contained a couple of rough spots and certain clichés, but in my opinion the author managed to use these things to her advantage. For example, Kath's character could've easily been a female version of a typical male hero, but in the hands of Karen Azinger she turned out to be a strong and likeable character.
I think I'll have to mention that writing medieval fantasy without rough spots and clichés is extremely difficult due to a huge amount of medieval fantasy books, so certain rough spots and clichés are to be expected in this kind of fantasy. Fortunately these things didn't bother me at all, because Karen Azinger's story was good and her characters were interesting.
I think that The Steel Queen is a fine example how well entertaining fantasy can be written and published without the help of big publishing companies. The Steel Queen proves that you don't always need a big publishing - if you have a good story, writing skills and enough time and energy to start your own publishing company, you can publish your own books and have total control over them.
The cover art by Greg Bridges looks nice and creates the right kind of atmosphere for the reader. The map also looks nice and it shows all the important places perfectly.
This may not be a perfect comparison, but in my opinion Karen Azinger's prose reminds me a bit of Carol Berg, Helen Lowe, Lynn Flewelling, Melanie Rawn and Martha Wells. She has the same kind of sense of style and talent for writing entertaining fantasy as these writers have. Writing entertaining fantasy is difficult and it demands a lot of effort, because the author has to know how to keep the reader interested in the story and how to surprise the reader with unexpected plot twists. Karen Azinger knows how to do this (and she also knows how to hook the reader into the story right from the start), so I can say that she's on her way to become a successful fantasy writer. I was positively surprised by this book and I'm looking forward to reading the next book.
The Steel Queen is a thoroughly enjoyable debut fantasy book. It offers excellent entertainment for fantasy readers and it won't disappoint fans of fast-paced fantasy adventures. If you're looking for a new, interesting and entertaining fantasy book, please read this book and treat yourself to a good adventure.