Bram McCabe, recently of the Pinkerton Agency, is sent across the pond to assist his British counterparts with an increasing level of violence from the Avian Emperor. A sinister puppet master, the Emperor has come to terrorize the skies in defense of his beloved birds and a recent airship disaster has the Emperor’s fingerprints all over it. Bram is used to working alone and suddenly he finds himself thrust into a tightly knit group of British agents who view him as little more than an interloper. Yet he finds himself strangely attracted to theurgist Vyvian Hart.
Vyvian isn’t quite sure what to make of the brash, dashing American that has invaded his well-ordered life. As the hunt for the Avian Emperor grows more intense, Bram and Vyvian find themselves inexorably linked. With Vyvian in the line of danger, Bram struggles to keep him safe while maintaining his professionalism. But the Emperor and his army of mechanical birds may end up destroying Bram and Vyvian before they have a chance to consider their future.
There are few books that have left me so conflicted as The Avian Emperor. There were times when I found myself utterly engrossed in the story and enjoying the interplay between the characters. And then I would turn the page and either roll my eyes at some excessively silly portion of the plot or just be frustrated by repetitive endearments and obnoxious behaviors. Let’s start with the basics. The Avian Emperor is a steampunk fantasy that builds its world around air ships and mechanical creatures that serve an unwilling master. The steampunk aspect is fairly well defined and, while it is occasionally uneven, it handles the genre better than many other novels. The antagonist, though somewhat flat, does have an air of psychopathy and violence about him that is truly intriguing. His supposed defense of birds quickly turns into a much more horrific reality that left me utterly despising him. Lastly, the author has a strong sense of time and place that comes through more often than not and adds some great flavor to the whole work.
But for all the positives there are an equal number of negatives. Bram and Vyvian never really come alive. They aren’t quite one dimensional, but it was hard to ever connect with either of them and I never bought into their romance. Repetitive use of familial terms or endearments in romances is a real annoyance of mine and it happens with The Avian Emperor. It gets annoying quickly and completely took me out of multiple scenes between Bram and Vyvian. The actions of secondary characters, which are prominent members of the story, often feel wedged into the story in order to force a plot point. As a result, these actions tend to stick out like a sore thumb and have no real purpose. There is an overall unevenness to the pacing and while there are moments of real intrigue, these are followed by scenes that either don’t make much sense or don’t fit within the wider context of the story.
The Avian Emperor definitely had some strong points, not the least of which was a truly maniacal bad guy and several well built steampunk themes. But ultimately lackluster characters, uneven pacing, and some rather ridiculous plot points left me frustrated. If you are a huge steampunk fan, you will probably find something in The Avian Emperor to enjoy. But for everyone else, I’d suggest giving this one a pass.