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Ramona Wheeler: Three Princes

cover: arched domes and pyramids rising in distance, foreground people in colourful clothing This book was so bad. I read it all the way through because I wanted to figure out what was going on and partly because the worldbuilding premise and finally, because if a book is terrible and I'm 50% through I might as well finish it and pick it apart.

I really really wanted to like this book. Here is the back cover, but its premise can be summed up in the following words--"alternate-universe nineteenth-century Egyptian empire with spies and terrorist Otto von Bismark."

Lord Scott Oken, a prince of Albion, and Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke live in a world where the sun never set on the Egyptian Empire. In the year 1877 of Our Lord Julius Caesar, Pharaoh Djoser-George governs a sprawling realm that spans Europe, Africa, and much of Asia. When the European terrorist Otto von Bismarck touches off an international conspiracy, Scott and Mik are charged with exposing the plot against the Empire.

Their adventure takes them from the sands of Memphis to a lush New World, home of the Incan Tawantinsuyu, a rival empire across the glittering Atlantic Ocean. Encompassing Quetzal airships, operas, blood sacrifice and high diplomacy, Ramona Wheeler's Three Princes is a richly imagined, cinematic vision of a modern Egyptian Empire.

This is such a cool premise and setting but it's botched because plotting was a mess, characterization painful and writing abysmal.

[I did not like this book]So Oken is a spy for the Egyptian crown, and he sets off to Tawantinsuyu with Mabruke, a senior spy who is travelling under cover of his professor role, because Egypt has learned that they have begun developing technology to try to fly to the moon. Tawantinsuyu already has aviation technology, capable of trans-Atlantic flights, though they take place over a span of days. Mabruke and Oken travel from Memphis, the seat of the Egyptian empire, to Marrakech where they see an opera, then fly over to Tawantinsuyu. They meet the second son of the current Inca, Viracocha, and then they get entangled into the politics of Tawantinsuyu and are captured.

I am bad at plot synopses, but this book is so disjointed that it's hard to sum it up.

Let me begin airing my grievances.

THE PLOTTING. It was terrible. Things just happened, because...because they did. It was really difficult to follow, too. Mabruke and Oken lurched from one event to another. Oken shows up magically at the right time to protect Mabruke, initially, and the queen attributes this to fate (or the equivalent), that he should have been walking the road just at the right moment. This goes nowhere, though; people just appear in the places they need to be for no reason. The third prince (I assume it is Viracocha) shows up like halfway through and I still do not understand why the title is the Three Princes. What about the Three Princes? Why are they so important, except that they star in the book? There is nothing specifically about them, or their cooperation; it's not about them at all.

Their mission is to go and find out whether Tawantinsuyu is developing technology, with a side plot of Otto von Bismark is a terrorist. von Bismark is operating under the instructions of Victoria and Albert. He is developing rockets, sort of like the pre-WWI & WWII German scientific development happening earlier. I am sad that Bismark is a scientist instead of practicing his realpolitik. But I am disappointed that we got to see him for all of two scenes. The whole subplot with the Black Orchids, i.e. the thing with Victoria and Albert threatening Egyptian hegemony, is brought up at the beginning, developed in Marrakech, and summarily dropped.

The mission thing is set up, then nothing seems to happen, and in the last chapters it all wraps up abruptly. With a promise of cooperation, apparently. The fact that Mabruke and Oken are spies specifically for the Egyptian empire does not dent this cooperative spirit, apparently. Being imprisoned for a few days together can cure all relationship ills between emissaries of two massive empires whose interests are probably conflicting somewhere, if history of anywhere anytime is any example. Maybe I am operating in a more realistic (cynical) mindset than this book is set in, but Viracocha doesn't seem to be destined for a long rule as Inca. He is far too flatly naive.

Most of the book is told from Oken's perspective, but occasionally Wheeler inserts scenes from someone else's perspective for no discernible reason. It doesn't advance the plot, and the writing is too weak and scattered to make broadening the perspective of the reader useful. And the snippets were so short. It'd be the ambassador to Tawantinsuyu getting the news and preparing to send messages through couriers. Uh, okay. That's so useful to know.

Then there's the utter stupidity of some lines. Soldiers are massacring anyone foreign born. Everyone is wondering what to do. Natyra comes up and says "they're soldiers. Rescind their orders!" Everyone reacts with praise. WHAT.

#1, why has no one thought of this before? and
#2, why do you think no one has thought of this before? Why are you suggesting this? You're supposed to be a clever character, and
#3, in a novel that is supposed to be at least somewhat serious, this is appallingly naive.

When Mabruke and Oken are travelling to Marrakech by car, there is a sandstorm. In the midst of it, hooded riders appear, snatch both of them, and ride off with them into the night. This is apparently Mabruke's devising; the men are his friends and they trust each other. Oken is not informed of this; throughout the night, he seriously thinks they've been abducted.

How on earth can you treat a fellow spy and friend like this? And have them trust you afterward? How is this practical? Why would you risk the safety of friends, because god knows how a spy would react if you grabbed them forcibly? And if the true reason was so that the people following Mabruke and Oken would truly believe the abduction, then why don't they ride off a few miles, and then take off their disguises so Oken and Mabruke can, you know, ride more comfortably?

If a building is burning, and you have to retrieve important documents inside, and you find The Document to implicate your enemy, do you:
a) snatch it, and immediately run outside so you can save it?
b) snatch it, open the seal, and start reading it in the middle of the building, which, by the way, had just been half-exploded by a tripped booby-trapped and partly on fire? Then call over all your friends so they can read it too? Presumably while still in the building?

I found it really difficult to follow the action too. Not the immediate stuff, like who's walking where, but the overall plotline. It just seemed to go nowhere!

The characterization bugged me big time. No one sounded believable. For example, there's a cook in Qusqo whose name is Mama Kusay. There are a few stereotypes of cooks and she is the extremely unfriendly one with a soft heart inside the protective shell. She is absolutely astonished, and I am sorry I feel so sarcastic about this, but she is shocked when Oken a) greets her with the proper bow and b) completely goes overboard praising her soup. With one word. And that's it! That's it! The loyalty is won right there! It was the most aggravatingly trite thing you can imagine. Oken brings Mabruke down to the kitchens for a repeat performance, and again, the usage of one word in Quechua drops the kitchen silent with astonishment!!

Look, it's not like they're speaking some eldritch language that cannot be formed by human tongues. They are saying one word in presumably Quechua.

Then there are character that inexplicably are nice to Oken for no apparent reason. Why should any random princess in Tawantinsuyu be nice to Oken? Why are the visiting princesses from the Iroquois Confederacy so taken with him? (Though it was pretty cool that in this world, the Confederacy is the dominant power in N America.)

Does Natyra seriously fall in love with Viracocha within less than a day? And was there really the implication that Viracocha was going to marry her? Yes, because Viracocha is so very free to marry whomever he pleases, especially a woman from half a globe away who is a performer, not royalty or any ranking whatsoever, especially now that he is Inca by popular acclamation! Oh yes, also Natyra has never been to the Americas before. This is her first visit to the continent. She can only have been on the ground in Tarawantinsuyu for a few weeks, at most. Also within the same page Blestyak (random character from way at the beginning, antagonistic) is going to marry Usqhullu, sister to the Inca. Is this a world where everyone has a True Love and can tell by meeting them for 0.5 seconds?

The writing was appalling. This is alternate universe or speculative fiction or on the SF/F spectrum, whatever you want to call it. Do you know where you can slack off on well-defined setting? Literary fiction set today. Stuff that is intensely character-driven, where we spend a lot of time inside someone's head. Do you know where you really cannot? Holy cow, THIS kind of book. The premise of the Egyptian Empire, of a powerful New World empire, is intensely fascinating and also doesn't have the same rich corpus of previous works to draw on. Do you know why Regencies can get away with barely describing settings? There are many, many, many books set in the same time period and the setting is already well built up by other people. It's also a real time period, so we have some idea of what it looked like. Also, people are not reading Regencies for worldbuilding; they're reading for emotional development1. But this is alternate universe. People are reading it for setting. In imagining new worlds, i.e. SFF, there is no such pre-done work. Unlike modern works, where even if the author never describes Chicago, you at least have a sense of the city from, you know, real life, alternate universe is constructed on description. It has to feel real. It has to be grounded. And Wheeler fails so miserably.

I am not asking for older epic fantasy's wall-to-wall paragraphs, or the sort of florid description that packs three adjectives for every noun and uses orbs for eyes. I am not asking for pitch-perfect exquisite description that perfectly captures whatever you're talking about, because that's rare. But the only way I can describe the description was that Wheeler tries, but she tries with about the first 5,000 most common words in English. She'll say that there are stone benches covered with wonderful fur and move on. This effectively gives you a blurry impression, and nothing else. The fun in alternate-universe is the differences in the little things. When you say "stone bench", it could seriously be any generic stone bench. The palaces are described and I get a good sense of their opulence, but everything else, I don't know.

I am grumpy that I am even writing this about description, because my line on description in fantasy and the like has always been to please dial it back, we don't actually need the minutia of everyone's clothes and the dinginess of the medieval village, thanks. I don't think I am very visual; I rarely visualize the scene. But the visual description provides an atmosphere, a sense of world, a sense of tangibility, and that is lacking.

And most damning of all the writing complaints I have is that sometimes I literally could not understand what Wheeler was trying to say. WHO is the father of Runa's son? I am pretty sure that Wheeler says who. But the dialogue is so indirect and half-said that even after re-reading the passage several times, I still don't know.

I'm willing to say I miss stuff in visual media and that's my fault. I don't watch a lot of TV or movies, I don't know conventions well, I don't absorb all the information well. But books, books I know. I have read a lot of books from a lot of different genres and time periods and I am pretty confident in my ability to read books well. I am pretty confident in saying that in this case it's not me mis-hearing or mis-interpreting or being just bad at reading, that I am failing to follow the plot. It's an incredibly badly-written book and I literally could not understand what Wheeler was trying to say. Full stop.

Random other things: at some point Oken does an imitation of a dim lower-class Gaelic soldier (Oken is part of the ruling family in Mercia). Apparently, this consists of broken grammar and usage of "hoy" as a random interjection/salutation. The Quetzals, the flying machines, are guided by albatrosses and birds can speak to them and humans. They are basically zeppelins with lighter-than-air doing the floatation thing, and require large crews to control every different part of the machine. This is utterly baffling to me. Leaving aside the birds talking thing (if you have enough tech to do flight and are contemplating space travel, why can you not develop some means of communication that is not subject to being literally snatched out of the sky by predatory eagles, a problem which is actually encountered??) why do you need so much fineness of control over your flying machine? Apparently it is so intricate that Oken can't follow any pattern. Yes, airplanes are more complicated than rudder, ailerons and elevators, but not that complicated. What the Quetzal pilots do is look at he formation of a flock of albatrosses flying in front of them and then making adjustments to follow them. (WHAT. WHY.) Since they are human powered and guided by literal birds, how on earth will they go to space? DO YOU UNDERSTAND THIS THING CALLED ESCAPE VELOCITY AND THE POWER REQUIRED? The Egyptian empire should have taken one look at how Quetzals worked and laughed their heads off at the rumour they're trying to get into space. They're powered by human pedal power on a trans-Atlantic flight. Come ON.

Finally, this book was male-gazey in the extreme. I think fully one half of the women we meet are topless (upper bodies painted, occasionally literally poisonously) and Oken is forever staring after some woman or another, and they're forever mooning after him too. Someone compared this to James Bond, but cripes, no. Fleming is a thousand times better on the objectifying front. I suspect one of the reasons characterization is so weird and warped is because either women are terrifying (the mother of Vincocha, who does not like foreigners), objectifiable (Natyra, Jaia, Jaianna, etc etc) or just nice to Oken. Nice, sexy, or villainy. Is there no woman in the books who doesn't succumb to either Oken or Mabruke's charm, who has her own motivations and isn't falling over herself to help them?

"They said you were his lover."

Oken did not let himself smile. "He wishes I were."

"You should be. He is a most beautiful man."

"Are you jealous?"

She stood up so that she could stamp her foot at him imperiously. "I have never been jealous of anyone in my life!"

Tip: if you, as an author, wish to do the Strong Female Character thing (in the narrowest hackneyed way this term gets used), and repeatedly state that Natyra is her own person and does not follow anyone (implying men) around, I suggest you not rely on actions that code the petulant-little-girl stereotype. You are shooting yourself in the foot.

I am so bitterly disappointed. I love speculative fiction and I love alternate history--to describe this book as up my alley cannot describe how excited I was to read this--and it was just horrible on so many fronts. It was so bad that it lowered my opinion of Tor, who published this. It wasn't entertainingly bad, it was incompetent. Complete, sheer incompetence. I expected so, so much better.

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/166070.html.



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