Rating: 4 stars
Buy Links: Amazon | All Romance
I must admit that I have never read steampunk as a genre before taking on Under the Rushes by Amy Lane. There is a vast amount of world building that had to be done in this novel and to the author’s credit, a solid foundation for this world was laid within the first five or six percent of this novel…but then, we were left scrabbling for footing in a vast array of new terminology and layers upon layers of technology that sometimes left me scratching my head in confusion. But, let’s recap the story first, before I get into why this novel did not quite make the five star status I think it could have had.
Under the Rushes spans more than a decade in the life of Dorjan, heir to Kyon’s Keep—a place that is the main producer of a mineral vital to the welfare of the army and apparently so volatile that if over-mined it could lead to the destruction of the planet. His best friend, Areau (whom Dori also loves as more than a friend) is a scientific genius whose ingenious machinery and armor could make the army invincible to all foes.
We join these two friends in their younger years as recruits in a group that was meant to be on their way to destroy a munitions hold of the enemy. Along the way, Dorjan happens upon a nine-year-old Taern hiding in the rushes after having lost his kite. The boy informs him that the army is not marching upon a munitions dump, but rather Taern’s home. Dorjan rushes ahead with Areau to stop the order and meets his future nemesis, Alum Septra, who ignores him and fires upon the keep. Utter devastation along with near fatal injuries fell both Areau and Dorjan.
Fast-forward a bit and we find Dorjan being blamed for mutiny and his cries against Septra’s barbarism falling on deaf ears. He is ceremoniously discharged from the army and he and his father Kyon must now rush to save Adreau who has been tortured and kept in an asylum under lock and key for the last month. Upon rescuing his friend, Dorjan watches his father being assassinated and rushes home with Areau to heal and plot his revenge on Septra who was responsible for sending the murderer.
Now we leap ten years and the twisted and harsh relationship that Dorjan and Areau have adopted that is based on guilt and anger and pain is revealed. We also find out that the boy Taern has survived by selling himself on the streets—the very streets that Doran now patrols by night ridding them of evil and the very drug that infected Areau ten years before. In a happy twist of fate, Dorjan ends up buying Taern’s contract and that of a girl for Areau—someone who can provide both the discipline and pain that Areau now craves—the very things that are slowly killing Dorjan with guilt and despair.
This pair of prostitutes, Taern and Krissa, become the means of salvation for both Areau and Dorjan and give Dorjan the much needed support to bring about change in the Forum and possibly take on Septra and bring him down.
That in a very small and inadequate nutshell is the basic plot of Under the Rushes. It is by no means an indicator of the multi-leveled story line and endless cast of supporting characters. Amy Lane is a master at angst and she gives us heaping doses in this story. In all, it is really a brilliant idea, and the story supports it well for the most part. However, this was neither fully steampunk nor fully a romance—it was dribs and drabs of both and I think this is what ultimately weakened the story overall. The novel began committed to developing this fantastical world and did a really good job of it. But as soon as other key characters were introduced, the world was left fallow and we saw it in bits and pieces, confusing bits and pieces that left me wondering where we were and how we had gotten there.
At the same time, the author really began to expose her true brilliance in the form of side-by-side love stories. Both Dorjan and Areau are dramatically changed by their lovers and the sweet romance that results, the healing and the succor given, was truly beautiful. However, this too, lost its full impact for we were forced back into the more technical aspects of new armors and weapons and the machinations of the Forum and political maneuvering. At one point I was sure we were hearing the author’s views on military expansion and war. At another time I felt we were privy to her thoughts about drug addiction. And yet another time I felt we were being given an intimate look at how the author viewed redemption from personal demons.
All at once this was not one story but three or four and I was not always certain where we were going to be swept to next. To say that this is a four-star read indicates the brilliance of author Amy Lane even when her trajectory is not at its best. Under the Rushes was a valiant attempt at a steampunk driven action/adventure that at its core was a sweet and hard won romance and many aspects of it succeeded. However, at times the sacrifices made to further a different story line left holes that made for a confusing read overall.