Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review: Under the Rushes by Amy Lane

Cover of Under the Rushes. A white man wearing a top hat, a dark coat, and a poofy cravat glares at the reader against a sepia-toned backdrop that superimposes bricks and clockwork over a cityscape rife with smoke stacks.
Going by the cover, I expected Amy Lane’s UNDER THE RUSHES [Amazon | Scribd] to be historical fantasy. Much to my surprise and delight, it's actually science fiction set on a distant world where the colonists have lost some of their founders’ technological prowess and redeveloped what remains into a system with a vaguely steampunk aesthetic. It has a lot in common with the baroque SF I always hope to stumble across, in which science fictional elements operate within an elaborate, highly stratified society.

A lot, but not everything. Because this isn’t just far-future SF: it’s a superhero novel!

Dorjan's been in martial disgrace ever since he took a civilian’s tip to heart and tried to prevent his province from starting a pointless war. Ten years on, he spends his days carefully steering the provincial leadership in his guise as Doltish and Disinterested Forum Master and his nights protecting the capital city as the Nyx, an armoured warrior who champions the most vulnerable elements of society. He's alone in this endeavour save for his genius inventor friend, Areau, who was tortured after his own disgrace and now demands soul-crushing things from Dorjan following each mission. Just as the pressure of dealing with Areau’s addictions becomes too much for Dorjan, he finds a solution in the form of two grateful rescuees--one of whom is the very boy who first alerted him to the corruption in his government, all grown up and determined to take an active role in the Nyx's endeavours.

The range on Amy Lane, y'all! To date, I’ve read two of her lighter contemporary romances, a fairy tale that straddled the line between sweet and dark, and this unrepentantly dark offering. And when I say “unrepentantly dark,” I mean UNDER THE RUSHES requires a pretty hefty trigger warning for… hell, I don’t even know what to call it. Dubcon, maybe? Emotional manipulation, definitely. The situation is, over the decade between the first chapter and the bulk of the story, Dorjan and Areau’s relationship shifts from that of near-brothers to mutual tormentors. Areau emerges from captivity with an addiction to pain which he presses Dorjan to help him with. Which is a problem, because Dorjan isn’t the slightest bit inclined towards BDSM, and Areau is mad enough from his ordeal that he’s determined to twist the knife on an emotional level.

This setup is further complicated because Areau designs the armour and weaponry that turn Dorjan into a one-man army, and because as far as anyone in power knows Areau is dead and Dorjan’s an idiot. That makes it really, really tough for them to get a break from one another.

So, proceed with caution if that’s the sort of thing that’s tough for you to read.

But of course, it wouldn’t be much of a book if there were no reason whatsoever for either character to hope. Lane breaks the cycle of pain by introducing Taern, the boy who helped Dorjan back in the day, and Krissa, one of Taern’s colleagues at the brothel where he works. Krissa becomes Areau’s Domme, while Taern exploits his earlier connection to Dorjan to assert he should become both lover and sidekick. Because it’s as obvious to Taern as it is to the reader that, talented or no, it’s only a matter of time before Dorjan comes up against a threat he can’t fight alone.

Shit’s still dark after Taern and Krissa come on the scene, but for the first time in a long time both Dorjan and Areau have something to focus on besides their endless, frustrating mission. That goes a long way toward relieving the emotional tension.

Lane’s too good to let the tension fall away completely, though. With everyone in place, she explores the tensions that naturally arise and endure within these four peoples’ relationships. Dorjan and Areau’s friendship is currently twisted and unhealthy, but the text is studded with glimmers of what they meant to one another when they were young. Each of the men forms a different sort of relationship with both Krissa and Taern, with whom they jive or clash according to their personalities, and Lane teases out all the small details that make these connections feel real. It’s a great big smorgasboard of delicious charactery goodness, is what it is, and I loved watching each relationship evolve as the characters deepened their bonds and helped each other work through their various traumas.

Taern and Krissa’s arrival also also gives Lane an excuse to explore the ins and outs of Dorjan’s mission without infodumping. She gives the reader a fascinating look at his parkour-laden training regimen, the patrols that allow him to take the city’s pulse and determine where the Nyx can do the most good, and the careful way he manipulates the rest of the Forum without tipping his hand. It’s beautifully done.

Lane’s prose is good and chewy throughout without being too dense to digest; a perfect fit for this far-future world that often feels fantastical because of its lack of certain technologies. Animal-aspected propulsion conveyances are well accounted for, as are innovations like electric lights, but nobody uses anything along the lines of a phone or a computer. Dorjan has some novels about space flight, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s actually gone to the stars in generations. The social structure is pseudo-feudal in a way that feels like a plausible extension of what might develop on a generation ship. And while we hear little about the planet itself, what we do get is intriguing in the extreme. The place has tempermental gravity affected by the asteroids Dorjan’s Keep controls; which, for their part, are tethered to the earth by organic umbilical cords and beloved of the planet’s fairy-like indigenous species, who jealously guard them against anyone they deem unworthy.

It’s fabulous. I couldn’t even mind that it turned out to be 170 pages longer than both Scribd’s book info page and the initial sample I read said it was, because that allowed me to spend even more time with these characters and their world. I charged into my next Amy Lane novel the moment I’d finished and will have a review of it for you next week.

One rep-related criticism: Taern’s former madame (and good friend) is trans, and while I get the sense Lane tried hard with Dorjan’s behaviour toward her, the language isn’t always up to snuff. That said, Taern never stumbles over his friend’s gender since in his view she’s obviously whoever she says she is, so these problems don’t extend into his POV segments. It’s possible Lane is trying to use Dorjan to model how a cis person might proceed if they really do want to be a good ally but they’re still figuring out how to doing the work.

Even if that’s the case, I’m also disappointed Lane went in a cliched and troubling direction with this character’s ultimate fate. Let’s give trans characters happy endings, please.


  1. Still haven't read anything by Amy Lane, but I want to get on it! I am very VERY much in the mood for romance novels lately so I'm trying to corral a bunch of books on my ereader to tear through.

    1. I'll warn you, this particular Amy Lane novel isn't a romance so much as a superhero novel with a romantic subplot. It's awesome, but it might not scratch your romance itch. FRECKLES, on the other hand, should do it in a big way.