I requested an advance look at The Devil’s Concubine (Jill Braden; Wayzgoose Press) because the blurb hinted at an unusual and atmospheric fantasy. It is that; alas, in some other unfortunate respects it is all too predictable.
The island of Ponong is a sort of other-earthly Java or Bali, tropically gorgeous and dangerous and inhabited by people who have at some time in the past apparently hybridized with snakes; they get nictiating membranes and venomous fangs as factory equipment. QuiTai is a Ponong native with a history as an actress in foreign parts. Returned to her homeland, she has become the the concubine of the Devil, the reclusive werewolf crimelord who runs the island’s underworld, and is attempting to protect her people against the colonizing Thampurians.
Your generic fantasy world this is not. Even on primitive Ponong they have not only steam engines but rudimentary electronics that have taken a somewhat different direction from our history, and the island’s main export is biological glowlights. The indigenous culture is very much south-east Asian; it’s nice to see someone seriously trying on a fantasy setting that isn’t either European medieval mystery-meat or any of the other well-worn ruts. And the prose isn’t bad; the author’s scene-painting, especially, works well.
Alas, the book has strong elements of housewife porn. There’s the requisite evil-but-sexy male QuiTai must struggle to escape, and the requisite looks-like-a-bad-boy-but-isn’t for her to run to. The battling courtship proceeds along entirely predictable lines, not really saved from being boring by the moderately snappy dialogue. As is usual in such productions, QuiTai is convincingly shown to be quite bright in her intrigues, but also in retrospect to have been inexplicably stupid when her glands were involved. Few of the plot reveals are really surprising, and you can see the biggest one coming a mile off.
Thus, unless formula romance is enough to satisfy you, this book fails to deliver on the imaginative promise of its setting. Which is a shame; if it had been less about QuiTai’s sex life and more about (say) her covert struggle against the Thampurians, it would have been a lot more fun. It’s supposed to be first in a series; it would be nice to think that the sequels will be about something other than her approach-avoidance dance with the guy, but experience has taught me to be pessimistic in such matters.