A Trilogy That Lost Its Way: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Shattersteel

My hopes were high for this final part in the Her Pitiless Command trilogy, Sriduangkaew’s take on the Snow Queen fairy tale, set in South East Asia, with queer characters started out really, really well. Sadly, the second book already lost momentum and direction. This conclusion to the series fared no better and felt to me like the author just wanted to get it over with.

SHATTERSTEEL
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: Apex Publications, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Her Pitiless Command #3
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: The prosthetic arm never seats quite right, despite countless adjustments.

For her entire life, Nuawa has made herself a weapon to assassinate the Winter Queen.

She failed. Her secrets are laid bare and she has lost everything.

The queen keeps Nuawa as a tool, and soon a sacrifice as she brings her ultimate goal to fruition: to harness the divine power of her makers that’ll make her lover General Lussadh immortal.

But Nuawa isn’t done fighting yet.

I could technically copy and paste my review of the second book in this trilogy, Mirrorstrike, because everything about that one still holds true with this final instalment. Except, this time, my patience was more tried, this one is the ending of the story so I had higher expectations, and it’s also just a little bit more chaotic and less coherent than its predecessor. But okay, I guess, let’s get into it.

Nuawa and Lussadh are getting married – hooray for the happy couple – so the first half of this 160 page novella is about them being lovey dovey and having lots of sex. Which, you know, is fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for and I actually found the sex scenes to be very well written. But the reason this book even exists – to tell the story of Nuawa fighting the Winter Queen – is completely ignored for almost half the book.
The romantic dialogue also makes me cringe every time because Sriduangkaew likes using big words and so her characters tend to make grand statements with polysyllabic vocabulary. It sounds over the top and overly dramatic to me but that’s a matter of taste and your mileage may vary.

One more thing that made reading this hard was the use of various different pronouns. It’s great to read about a world that includes all sorts of genders and relationship constellations, but using she/her, he/him, they/them, xe/xer, and ey/eir/em in a book this slim felt like overkill. Especially because sometimes, when we were in Nuawa’s point of view and she just met a character for the first time and couldn’t know what pronouns ey used, she was thinking about that person as ey/em, and that just felt strange. Like how do you see if someone goes by they/them, ey/em, or something else entirely?? So again, I love the inclusion but it didn’t feel organic.

Something that is a fact, though, rather than personal preference, is the lack of plot. Now that the trilogy is finished, I have come to the conclusion that the author had a great idea, wrote the first book, and then didn’t quite know where to go from there. Everything feels so up in the air, every scene on its own reads okay but there is very little connecting these scenes to each other. The whole Snow Queen theme got lost along the way and it reads like the author pantsed her way through it all and then just left the book as it was. I get it, writing a book is difficult and writing a trilogy even more so, but that’s what editing and drafting is for. Also, maybe spend at least half a page reminding your readers of what happened before? Yes, the book then might be 200 pages long but those would be pages well used.

The characters also never quite recovered after the first book. In Mirrorstrike they already felt like shadows of themselves, occupied mostly with swooning over each other rather than what they’ve been spending their entire lives doing up until then. Nuawa from Shattersteel is barely recognizable as Nuawa from Winterglass anymore. The same goes for Lussadh. I did enjoy some minor characters in this book but they don’t get enough time to shine because this is still a very short book.

The resolution to what was set up in the first book is relatively simple and had a deus ex machina feel to it. Nuawa originally set out to destroy the Winter Queen, avenge her people, and free her land and she went a good part of the way on her own strenght and intellicenge. Sadly, she lost her agency along the way as well, so it’s not really even her to battles the Winter Queen at the end but someone else. Any satisfaction I might have felt in finally achiving the big goal was dampened by the fact that Nuawa was, at best, a messenger rather than the saviour of the people.

All things considered, I’m mostly disappointed. I will forever love and adore Winterglass but I don’t see much of a reason to recommend books two or three. They add very little to the world building and characters. What little plot they offer is merely a convoluted vehicle to get to the ending (defeat the Queen and have a relationship with Lussadh, that’s all there is to it, really). I’ll give Sriduangkaew another chance and try her Machine Mandate series but as much as I enjoy beautiful language and deep characters, the books I read still need some kind of plot. And this one couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up so now it’s a jumbled mess of pretty words.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Middle Book Syndrome: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Mirrorstrike

If you’ve read my review of Sriduangkaew’s beautiful novella Winterglassyou know that my one gripe with it was that it felt so unfinished, like the beginning of a bigger story. Well, apparently the author felt the same because here is the sequel in what will probably be a trilogy.
There are some spoilers below for the first book in the series, although I think Winterglass is just as enjoyable to read even if you already know what happens.

MIRRORSTRIKE
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: 2019
Paperback: 160 pages
Series: Her Pitiless Command #2
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: In the house of the Winter Queen, even time itself slows.

With her mother’s blood fresh on her hands, Nuawa has learned that to overthrow the tyrant Winter Queen she must be as exact as a bullet… and as pitiless.
In the greatest city of winter, a revolt has broken out and General Lussadh has arrived to suppress it. She’s no stranger to treason, for this city is her home where she slaughtered her own family for the Winter Queen.
Accompanying the general to prove her loyalty, Nuawa confronts a rebel who once worked to end the queen’s reign and who now holds secrets that will cement the queen’s rule. But this is not Nuawa’s only predicament. A relentless killer has emerged and he means to hunt down anyone who holds in their heart a shard of the queen’s mirror. Like the general. Like Nuawa herself.
On these fields of tumult and shattered history, the queen’s purposes will at last be revealed, and both Lussadh and Nuawa tested to their limits.
One to wake. Two to bind. These are the laws that govern those of the glass.

There are few retellings that gripped me as much as Winterglass did. With striking language, brilliant characters, original world building and the beginning of a kick-ass plot, it had everything I wanted from a retelling. Some of the things I loved so much are continued in this sequel, although I have to say it could have used some more editing. The plot meanders and it felt like it couldn’t quite decide which direction it wanted to go. Are we still in a science-fantasy retelling? Because we drift off into very cheesy romance territory at times… but let’s start at the beginning.

Nuawa is now a lieutenant in the Winter Queen’s service and she’s also started a relationship with general Lussadh, that most intriguing of characters. Unfortunately, the characters and world building really stalled in this book, or in some cases was even less present than before. Nuawa’s goal is still destroying the Winter Queen, working closely by her enemy to discover weaknesses and exploit them. So far, so exciting. But instead of the active part she played in the first book, in this one she mostly just reacts to other people’s actions. She is still kick-ass and her character grows throughout the story, but she has much less agency than she did in Winterglass and the book was just a little less good for it.

One of the most interesting aspects of the first book was the world building. Set in an alternate Thailand (or at least South East Asia), winter rules supreme since the Winter Queen conquered the land. With people’s ghosts used for power, magical ghost kilns which extract those ghosts from living people, science-fantasy style chiurgeons who can perform unbelievable feats, and magic weapons that can kill someone by hurting their shadow, there was so much to discover, so many little things that I wanted to learn more about. Sadly, there is almost nothing new in this book about ghosts or the kilns or even how this conquered world even really works, government-wise. Most of those ideas are treated as throw-away lines here and there. It felt like the author had lost all drive to establish her world further, or maybe she hadn’t thought her ideas through to the end. What was imaginative in the first book felt like window dressing in this one.
The one thing Sriduangkaew does give her readers is more information about the Winter Queen’s origins and the power of those glass fragments that created her glass bearers. While interesting, that didn’t nearly reach the level of world building and lore from the first book.

As I already mentioned, the characters also seem to have lost a lot of their strength. I don’t mean physical strength – both Nuawa and Lussadh are still amazing fighters – but I’m talking more about their agency and personalities. Nuawa has done some crazy stuff in the first book in order to get close to the Winter Queen and achieve her goal of avenging her country and her family. Lussadh has equally been through horrible things, but while in Winterglass she was surrounded by a mesmerizing aura of mystery, all of that was gone in Mirrorstrike. It’s nice to see those two as a happy-ish couple but they exchanged some serioiusly cheesy lines and felt like cliché people from a bad romance story.
Nuawa does go through an interesting development, although it is lessened by the fact that it’s so blatantly stated instead of being shown subtly. She is warned that being a glass-bearer will turn her more and more to the Queen’s side, make her willing to help the Queen stay in power, and Nuawa feels that pull and has to fight it. But this also felt like something that came and went, being very visible in one chapter only to be almost forgotten in the next. Nuawa was such a standout strong character and now she felt kind of wishy-washy. Sometimes she feels how the Queen draws her in, then that’s all forgotten and she pursues her goal single-mindedly again.

As for the plot… that was the weakest part of the book. A lot of little things happen, only some of which pushed the plot forward, and most of which felt like distjointed scenes put together somehow. There is a plot line about traitors to the Queen plus some assassination attempts – and that just fizzles out. There is a new character who has connections to Nuawa’s past, and while I think that story will continue in the next book, it was also left hanging in this one, rather unceremoniously. What bothered me the most was that it felt like I could see through the writing. It felt like the author wanted to get a piece of information across – like the Winter Queen’s weakness or a hidden truth about Nuawa’s mothers – and the scene did just that, but nothing more. And I know the author can do more, she proved that over and over in the first book. I actually re-read Winterglass before starting this one and even on the second reading, that book was just amazing. Mirrorstrike felt like a bit of a mess in comparison, with no red thread to follow, random things happening here and there, but very little that connects it to the bigger plot hinted at in Winterglass.

But the one thing that still stands out and that made this still a very good book is the language. You kind of have to like that particular style, but if you do, you’ll love it. It’s lyrical, it has big words, and it flows beautifully. I did think that Sriduangkaew overdid it a few times in this book, maybe trying a tad too hard to sound poetic and ending up with something more resembling ridiculous, mostly during the romantic exchanges between Nuawa and Lussadh. But for most of the book, the prose is gorgeous and paints vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. And it kept me reading even though the somewhat disjointed plot kept confusing me.

This is definitely a case of middle book syndrome but at 160 pages, that is forgivable. The ending delivered a nice little twist (which made sure I’d want to read the next book) and, sadly, another super cheesy moment. But I’ll forgive that because I really finally want to know how the story ends and whether the Winter Queen can be vanquished. Now all I have to do is wait for the third book…

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good