The Scarlet Empress
Susan Grant’s The Scarlet Empress is a brisk pageturner with a fast-moving storyline and likable characters. But while it’s an entertaining read, it’s also a less satisfying conclusion to the 2176 saga than it might have been.
Grant, the creative force behind this mini-series, kicked things off with 21st Century Air Force pilot Bree “Banzai” Maguire awakening in the year 2176. As the first book ended, she and her lover, SEAL Tyler Armstrong, were on the run, with their romantic future promising, but not conclusive. In the last book, Bree and Tyler were captured by forces from the U.C.E., the oppressive “meganation” made up of formerly independent countries, including the United States. This book opens by repeating that sequence from Banzai’s point of view, but only after giving their love story a more definitive conclusion as Tyler proposes. This makes for a somewhat slow beginning, as we already know what’s going to happen, and being thrust into the conclusion to a romance I read eight months ago, and whose characters I barely remembered, made for a bumpy start.
Finally, more than fifty pages into the story, we’re introduced to the main characters of this book. Cameron “Scarlet” Tucker, Banzai’s fellow pilot, was also frozen in suspended animation with her. She’s been living on a rustic farm in Mongolia since she awoke, having been told that the outside world was destroyed in a nuclear war. However, she soon learns that was a lie when bounty hunters hired by Kyber, the crown prince of Asia, come to capture her.
Kyber had offered his home and hospitality to Banzai when she was discovered, only to have her run off with Armstrong. He doesn’t intend to let Cam get away from him as easily. He and his chief of security go undercover as bounty hunters to apprehend her themselves. Telling her his name is Kublai, he takes her prisoner and they begin a long trek to the Asian capital of Beijing. Meanwhile, the U.C.E. plans to make an example of Banzai, forcing her to stand trial for treason. The mysterious “Voice of Freedom” advocating rebellion throughout the world has been using Banzai as a symbol of the way life used to be and should be again. The U.C.E. wants to make an example of her to quash any rebellion before it can start.
The binding describes the book as “action romance.” Unfortunately, this means that for most of the book Banzai gets the action scenes and Cam only gets romance. Cam and Kyber’s relationship begins as the classic road romance. The two characters meet, and as they make their way to Beijing, they talk a lot, slowly become accustomed to each other, and grow increasingly aware of their mutual attraction. It’s not particularly exciting, but it’s enjoyable thanks to the author’s light prose and zippy dialogue. Cam and Kyber are fun, but not particularly deep. She’s a tough, feisty heroine and I appreciated that the author didn’t dump some angst on her shoulders to “soften” her. But at times she feels a little too much like a lesser version of Banzai, and she may be the least compelling heroine offered in a series full of great heroines. Kyber is more interesting, but for some reason he felt less real and multi-dimensional to me than he did in the first book, where he was merely a mysterious antagonist. They’re still both very likeable characters with great chemistry, but I kept wishing for more action and more opportunities for the heroine to really show she’s kick-ass.
To be fair, the Cam and Kyber storyline has roughly the same amount of action as the Banzai/Tyler/Kyber storyline in book one. I think the difference is that the creation of this world and Banzai’s introduction to it was so fascinating. Even if there wasn’t that much outright action for much of the book, it was still a gripping read. The world has already been established at this point, and without the world-building to compensate, it was easier to notice the lack of action. In fact, this book has a lack of detail and world-building altogether, especially compared to the other entries in the series. The setting never came to life the way it did earlier in the series. It felt a little vague around the edges and not as vivid as it needed to be to completely immerse the reader in this world. This is the main reason why, as the book, and the series, built to its momentous climax, I was certainly interested to see how it played out, but not really emotionally invested in the outcome.
Those criticisms aside, there is more than enough here to make for an entertaining read. The author has some surprises up her sleeve, with at least one unexpected twist I didn’t see coming. The Banzai plotline is exciting in a way Cam’s often isn’t, with some good drama and gripping sequences. When the storylines finally converge, Cam at last gets to kick some butt. Grant also offers up some interesting commentary on the ethics of cloning, and the political elements echo real life in ways that are very relevant. The political situation is nicely complex. The book is advocating democracy, yet Kyber is the leader of a country that is not one, yet seems to be doing quite well. The ending is somewhat rushed, with a series of epilogues that awkwardly leap across periods of time in a way that makes everything a little too easy, but I doubt many will care.
If I had to sum up this book in just a few words, they would be “Tastes Great, Less Filling.” This is a fast, engaging pageturner that ably delivers a few hours worth of entertainment. Afterwards though, it’s a little too rushed and lightweight to quite give the 2176 series the finale it really deserved. Even so, fans of this very strong series won’t want to miss it.