Epic fantasy meets steampunk meets anime in this engrossing story of a prince at the center of a conspiracy, and many different people who want to kill him. It's full of intriguing political schemes, heart-pounding drama, friendship, moral dilemmas, romance... honestly, this story has it all.
First, the world itself is a bit complex. It took until about halfway through the book for me to get a moderately good feel for the four nations and how they interacted with each other, and how they were different, and why they didn't get along. Part of me wishes there was a bit more telling instead of showing, but I also enjoyed the feeling of complete immersion in the story. One nation has the ability to steelpact, which is essentially a sharing of the soul with steel to manipulate it and use it. A couple other nations have the ability to shadepact, with is also the sharing of ones soul, but this time with an animal. An exchange takes place, where the human agrees with the animal to fulfill its wish, and in return, they bond with the human and become much more than just an animal. They grow in size and strength, and can be used as weapons. Of course, this brings up all types of moral dilemmas. The steelpacters despise shadepacters and can't fathom any world in which this isn't reprehensible. In return, the nations who shadepact feel repressed, and in most cases they are. And like I mentioned, this brings up all sorts of fascinating political, social, and economic issues that make the world unique.
The plot centers around Price Jimuro, who is of the Tomodanese, the current Empire who steelpacts and is trying to dominate the shadepacting nations. He is a great character, who you first assume is some sort of tyrant. As the story progresses, you realize he wants peace, and he doesn't want to do things the way his bloodline has done them for years and years. He's funny, engaging, and utterly likeable. His bodyguard is Tala, a shadepacter who is tasked with seeing him to safety from various people who want to kill him, but who is from a nation that the Tomodanese have conquered. It's necessary for political stability that Jimuro get to his coronation as Emperor, and Tala takes her assignment seriously. However, she holds him and his people responsible for the murder of her family (rightfully so) and struggles with her dislike of Jimuro and what he represents. This book does a masterful job at drawing out our assumptions about people, and second chances.
Two other characters, Lee and Xuilan, are trying to kill Jimuro (again, for various political reasons). Lee in particular is a rogue, and hilarious, and endearing, and annoying. I loved her character.
The writing style took some getting used to. The modern jargon threw me for a loop, but as it became apparent this was a modern, yet not modern, world, I settled into it a bit better. The humor was well-placed and not overdone, and the epic feel of the book was just how I like it: pacing, humor, romance, magic, battles, character growth... it all made for one fun read. My one complaint, and hence why this is not a full five stars, was the romance was a bit rushed between two characters. It annoyed me, and almost came across as "Hey, I'll just throw this in there to make romance crowds happy." The chemistry was a bit forced. Otherwise, I really, really enjoyed this incredibly unique novel.
Lastly, thanks to the publisher Del Rey for the ARC. You can grab the book on sale now.