The Amber Crown by Jacey Bedford
The Amber Crown (2022), by Jacey Bedford, contains several elements that tend to have me leaning away rather than into a book, including rape, implied rape, threatened rape, and some torture/horrid executions. I mention them upfront for the convenience of those who can tell already the book isn’t for them and so will stop reading the review now (I should note they aren’t egregiously gratuitous, mined for trauma [as characterization] rather than titillation; the book is far from torture porn). For those for whom those are not dealbreakers, Bedford delivers a solid work set against an interesting quasi-historical background but with a plot I found far less engaging than the characters. In the end, I can’t say the book’s strengths fully outweighed its weaknesses or my distaste for some of those aforementioned scenes, though one’s mileage will vary on that.
The book seems to be set in an area and time roughly akin to 17th Century Central and Eastern Europe, though it’s not an exact analogue. The Zavonian king, Konstantyn, has been assassinated and the captain of his High Guard, Valdas Zalecki, framed for the murder. Avoiding capture, Valdas vows to find and kill the actual assassin, though he’s more than a little hindered by being the most wanted man in the kingdom. Along the way, he picks up (or, actually, is picked up by) a wagon group of Bakaishans and finds himself an unexpected quest partner to their group’s healer and witch, Mirza. Meanwhile, the assassin has also managed to escape the capital city, though in doing so he unexpectedly becomes far more entangled in affairs than he prefers. Eventually, the three characters’ stories will intertwine fully (along with a fourth) as they become embroiled in a conflict far larger and more dangerous than a mere coup.
As noted, the characters are a definite strength of The Amber Crown. Lind is a man torn by a host of competing drives and emotions as well as haunted by trauma whose origins are slowly revealed piecemeal throughout the book. He’s the type of character we’ve seen before — the cold-blooded assassin the reader eventually warms to — but Bedford executes it well, which makes all the difference. Mirza is also well drawn, an outsider even amongst her people, one isolated by her magical abilities (which her people, particularly the men, fear at least as much if not more than they respect) and a disfiguring birthmark, so that when the group’s original witchwoman dies at the start (Mirza is her apprentice), Mirza must fight for even the barest acknowledgment of her authority. This doesn’t change once she joins Valdas on his quest, given how her people are viewed as thieves and whores by nearly all nations, none of whom will tolerate their presence for more than the briefest of times before forcing them to move on. Valdas is a bit more stock than the other two, less complex, more straightforward, the noble soldier driven by honor to do the right thing, but a kindness sits at his core that is often missing in other such characters (or overshadowed by their banter or tough guy façade)), even if at times it’s a bit overtly highlighted.
Secondary characters are more hit and miss, sometimes drawn briefly but sharply, as with the female head of a spice trading company. On the other end of the spectrum, the taciturn warrior/spy character feels more like a plot prop, though I’m honestly not sure much would be lost in plot or character if she didn’t exist. Meanwhile, Valdas’ main love (he “loves all the ladies” as one character says about him), is the typical happy sex worker who is more competent than her profession might lead one to guess and is also both kind and carries a spine of steel. Similarly with Lind, Bedford executes the familiar character type well. That said, I’m not typically a fan of this character type — which paints such work in a far softer light than is usually the case. Which makes it all the more discordant when specific mention is made of how the women need to keep cosmetics to “cover up bruises” from those who “beat on a woman … plenty do.”
While we’re on the topic of sex, I may as well mention there’s a goodly amount of it here (to be clear, I’m separating “sex” from rape) — with lots of references to and descriptions of cocks and breasts as characters spend a lot of time thinking about sex, talking about sex, or just getting around to actually having sex. Too much for me, not for any prudish reason but because I find such scenes rarely add anything but more words to the text, hardly ever moving plot or adding to characterization, and the words they do add are rarely well strung; it takes a deft hand to bring off a good sex scene and most writers, I’ve found, don’t satisfy.
Speaking of not satisfying, if the characters are a strength, the plot is a weakness here. The characters sort of meander from point A to B in the first half, only to end up leaving point B to return to point A. This structure isn’t inherently bad, but here it just felt a bit listless and more as if the characters were being moved to various places just to separate them before they could be moved back in place to connect with each other. The villain is not just the weakest characterization in the novel — stock villain sorcerer, no motivation really, not particularly competent — far worse is that he’s supposed to be some deeply hidden manipulator behind the scenes, but it’s obvious throughout the book, becoming more painfully so at the end which makes it all the worse when the characters still don’t get it, even though he may as well have his name emblazoned atop the citadel like Trump Tower. Finally, the ending is more than a little anticlimactic, which is too bad because Bedford sets up some situations that are potentially rich for a mining of emotions and complexity that never really happens.
By the end, I’m still not sure honestly how I feel about The Amber Crown. I enjoyed the three main characters and wish they’d been better served by the plot and less burdened by an abundance of not particularly interesting sex (or discussion of sex). Typically that sort of combo — good characters with a bad plot or bad plot with good characters — will garner a “solid” rating, a 3 or 3.5 depending on how balanced the strengths and weaknesses were. I’m giving The Amber Crown a 3.0 but adding that my personal rating would be a 2.5 because of my distaste for the several rape references/threats/acts and detailed torture description. Again, not torture porn here — Bedford doesn’t dwell overlong in these moments — but they’re just not my thing.
I’m very tired of rape as the ONLY way to give characters “stakes,” but the characters do sound interesting.