Content warning below a cut, spoilers and cw: rape, misogyny
It’s…. well. It’s mostly fun!
I have a fondness for self-indulgent stories about logistics competence, and for ‘vaguely historical and/or fantasy setting but you are the guy who builds the traps in the megadungeon’ type light novel silliness. You get fun worldbuilding and usually a funny & refreshingly blunt narrative voice. This has these things, which is why I listened to it after reading half of it a couple of years ago. And it executes on those things well! Lots of stuff about little details of mechanics in this world, which as it’s a lightly reskinned roman empire world are fairly indistinguishable from mechanics in our world (I say this with next to no knowledge of roman weaponry and production, or indeed physics. I managed not to think about history for basically this whole book, which is a feat for me; classics scholars may hate it.)
The stuff on empire and loyalty is interesting, though I didn’t find it very consistent or, to be honest, very persuasive. But it was still interesting!
Alright, spoilers ahead, n also more negative stuff. . . . . . . . . . . . . The ending is, like, fine. I like a good tragedy - this didn’t Quite work as a good tragedy for me. I would have liked him to have to grapple with the aftermath a little more, personally, instead of being a Martyr of Stubbornness or whatever. Maybe the author is speaking to an interest/fear/desire that I do not have.
In audiobook form it was particularly obvious all the times the author reused turns of phrase, which was: enough times & clunkily enough for me to think ‘huh, that was sloppy’. This is pretty minor though. The main thing is: the misogyny!
You can make your character a salt-of-the-earth Complicated misogynist who, no, look, there’s loads of women he respects, and who the narrative respects cos they’re so skilled in engineering or chess! You can do that, and have him literally have a woman sleep with him as payment for something (which he doesn’t do) and immediately betray her, resulting in her gruesome death, and have that misogyny never punished by the narrative. You can’t do all that and frame it as ‘a necessary evil, makes you think, huh?’ or ‘ah, he’s cranky but he has a good heart, time to move on with our perspective on this character not particularly changed’ or ‘ohh this guy, stuck in his ways, but a charming idiot’ and have me still fully enjoy this book. It really feels like a lot of classic sci fi and fantasy I bounced off growing up over and over again because it was so clearly written by straight men who never really thought about what women, or men with different experiences, might find uncomfortable in a story. A story that makes its readers uncomfortable on purpose can obviously be fantastic - but where this book does that I feel like it’s going for shock value and not following it up with actual thought, ‘omg her scalp!!’, and in most of the misogynistic bits it doesn’t seem like the author intends for the reader to be uncomfortable at all, to any extent beyond ‘haha, main character, what a weird but relatable guy’. If you’re going to have your antihero-ish main character have a fun little chat with his gentlemanly paragon friend where he makes a direct rape joke, and you’re deploying it in the same way you deploy all your other jokes - like a fun characterful bit of patter to ease your reader through some exposition - then you’ve gone wrong somewhere. It’s not deconstructed sexism just because he gets a tragic death with his daughter beating at the door, or because he’s a Complicated Guy who Values Women Sometimes (in-narrative, he values women when he is in love with them, is their father, or they are in love with him), or because you talk sympathetically about how women have it particularly hard in this world. There isn’t like… a little card that you can get that lets you joke about raping women and have it succeed as a light comfortable joke.
Anyway. 2.5/5 for the novel-length logistics competence self-indulgence, I found that fun enough and the whole thing about loyalty and moral behaviour compelling enough to still in general enjoy this book. Wish it had been a bit more polished.