Friday, July 5, 2024

Book Review: The Price of Redemption by Shawn Carpenter

The Price of Redemption attempts to do, not always successfully, with magic and sorcery what Naomi Novik’s Temeraire’s dragons did with the Napoleonic War

Flintlock fantasy, or gunpowder fantasy, tends to run from the invention of firearms up until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. From the first flintlocks and matchlocks, up until the brilliance of Napoleonic warfare, there is an ever widening appetite for having guns AND magic in a secondary world fantasy. Often, this sort of fantasy leans heavily on various nations having clear analogues to our history and leaning on the history and cultures of the evoked real-world nations to help worldbuild.

And so we come to Shawn Carpenter’s The Price of Redemption.

Albion [Read: Great Britain] and Ardain [Read: France] are locked in a dueling combat for control over the high seas. Ardain in general is not doing well; it is suffering under a new Theocracy [Read: The French Revolution Terror], which is hunting aristocrats, particularly aristocrats who are mages. It's conflict on the high seas. The Ardain don't yet seen to have a Napoleon type, but they definitely are in mortal strife with Albion. But as this is early in the Terror, there are plenty of Ardainians who are running from the bloody-mindedness of the new regime.

Enter Enid. End is a noblewoman fleeing the Theocracy. In the course of that, her ship, pursued by the Theocracy, is captured by a small Albionian ship, the Alarum, headed by its acting captain, Lieutenant Rue Nath. Having lost his shipboard mage in the struggle against the Theocracy ship, Nath offers Enid a provisional position as a replacement shipboard mage, and so a tenuous alliance is formed between Albionian and Artagny, ship officer and noblewoman mage. And thus begin their adventures and struggles against enemies and rivals both foreign and domestic.

The novel takes a good while to find its footing. It starts off with a lot of granular detail as to the life and nature of being on board a ship in our equivalent of the turn of the 19th century. I think the novel bogs down, quite frankly, in the author’s delight to present us everything, and since Enid knows very little about living and working and life on board a seagoing vessel, and she is one of our viewpoint characters, we can and do get a large and sometimes not well integrated wealth of information. And for a while, Enid doesn’t quite breathe as much as she should as a character. She feels much more like a plot device.

For example, right in the first chapter, she is described as engaging in a magical duel with a sorcerer on the Theocracy ship pursuing her, but the magical duel is described in such a spartan and brief way that it is a case of blink and you miss it. Enid has some secrets, but the novel seems awfully reluctant to actually show any of them for quite some time, focusing far more on life in terms of things going on the ship instead. (There is also an extensive appendix at the end of the book with even more nautical and naval terms.)

The novel also seems to forget some things, or not realize them, only belatedly coming back to them. Just what the role of language is in this society was unclear, and for about half the book, it seemed that Ardain and Albion spoke the same language, which felt like a mistake and misstep in worldbuilding that the novel later corrects and seems to remember. I am thus also not convinced that the analogue history here works as smoothly as it might, and it feels more of a case of “spot the analogue” for fair stretches of the book. (Oh here is France, here is Spain, here is Gibraltar...) So for much of the first half, the book mostly feels like an expy of other authors rather than Carpenter’s own voice.

However, the novel slowly does find its feet, or gets into smoother waters, to continue the analogy. There are some interesting facets and aspects to the magic system; and Enid’s own backstory, once we get a real sense of it, is moving and striking, but I’d argue it should have come far earlier in the book. It’s welcome when we do get it. There are good action sequences, and there is a proper conflict where we DO get to see Enid perform her magic in a vivid and well described manner. It didn’t erase the memory of the poorly described duel, but it did help reestablish and fully establish her as a competent character.

When it comes to Nath and his crew, and the more mundane aspects of their conflicts, that is well written. We get a number of set piece conflicts that really evoke and invoke the best of authors such as Patrick O’Brian, who is the clear and present model for Carpenter’s work. If the thrill and thunder of ships trading cannon fire gets your blood pulsing, this novel definitely delivers on it. There is, as the novel progresses, a fair amount revolving around the scheming, politics and even backstabbing that goes on in the naval service around promotions and commands, and that, too, is O’Brian all the way. But this, put together with the magic system, often feel like they are from two different books.

The novel also takes about two thirds before it decides to break away from the analogue worldbuilding and come up with something new and novel that doesn't have an obvious analogue to our world. The Darghaur might seem like an analogue of Vikings... but it is clear that they are in fact definitely not human at all. They sail barges, use strange firearms, deploy odd magic and are frankly terrifying. Given how I had been nodding along with everything in the novel by this point, the Darghaur also feel like they come from yet another book.

In the end, that is what I am going to come down on. The Price of Redemption has a lot of things going for it, but they aren’t always harnessed properly or efficiently, or quite as a cohesive whole. There are a lot of worldbuilding elements here, but they sometimes come across in a blunt manner rather than being folded into the narrative. Our characterization of not only Enid but Rath as well really takes a back seat and takes time to come out. There are some interesting aspects to both their backstories, but it can be a slog to get to. There is also possibly the beginnings of a same-sex relationship with Enid and a naval officer—and the book is good about making a world far more enlightened about the role of women in society than its late-18th-century counterpart, but again, it doesn’t feel cohesive. The book does improve as it goes on, which gives one hope that subsequent volumes will be stronger, but for me, this first volume was rather rough.

The Price of Redemption, ultimately, is a book that is less than the sum of its parts.


  • Interesting pieces of worldbuilding
  • Strong resonances with O’Brian, Forrester and allied authors
Reference: Carpenter, Shawn. The Price of Redemption [Saga Press, 2024].

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.