I volunteered at the right time, just when Havemercy was fresh off the table, and she was being real picky and real precise about not having anyone fly her no matter how they coaxed, until she took one look at me and it was love at first sight, only we both knew the other one didn't have any heart for loving to speak of. She was beautiful then and she's still beautiful now, though there's a clip off her left wing from getting in too close to the real fighting one time, but we turned the tide of the skirmish and sent the Ke-Han packing ... so I guess we did all right by that. (p. 73)
Steampunk dragons, wizardry, lost love and wild romance: what's not to love?
For a hundred years Volstov and the Ke-Han empire have been at war, neither power's magical or military might sufficient to conquer the other. Now something seems to be tipping the balance -- but there's something odd about the way the war's being won. Magicians are falling ill, dragons are malfunctioning, the Esar (Volstov's ruler) isn't being wholly honest with his advisors, and the Ke-Han aren't behaving like the losing side.
Havemercy is told from four different viewpoints. Royston is a magician, exiled from court to his brother's country estate; Hal is the tutor of his brother's children and an avid reader of novels ('romans') and legend; Thom is an academic, volunteered by his mentor to reform the notoriously lawless Dragon Corps; and Rook is the reckless and arrogant bad boy of said Corps. Each of the characters has lost something; each is an agent of change; each passes through danger, finds love, makes a difference, ends up somewhere he didn't expect. Each is affected, changed, by his relationships with one or more of the other protagonists. And each man's story is different, distinct, grounded in his character.
This is a world with an eighteenth-century sensibility. Volstovian society values both arts and science (magic very firmly in the latter camp: those steampunk dragons are masterpieces of engineering with a touch of magical power). A man's wit, style and attire are as important as his wealth or prowess. With four protagonists, we're given a representative cross-section of society, from Royston's cynical charm ("it would not do to offend my brother's wife all at once. There would be no sport left for later on" (p. 21)) to Rook's rough contempt for a social order that would ordinarily have doomed him to poverty.
I'd have liked to see more female characters: I know these authors can write strong, fascinating women. And the last few chapters felt hasty after the measured (though never sluggish) pace of most of the book. But I liked this very much indeed, and would recommend to anyone who enjoyed Melusine, Swordspoint, The Well-Favored Man, Temeraire ... Or, indeed, anyone who enjoys well-written, humorous and pacy fantasy, with or without a steampunk dimension.