I'm not sure how to rate this book, and reserve the right to change my mind later.
The good: the writing is powerful, poetic without (often) turning purple. In Files's hands, scenes of body horror and guro become almost beautiful despite stomach-churning amounts of gore. Almost, and yet they never lose their edge. The Wild West setting comes alive as well, and I love all the alternate history touches.
The bad: Zana and I have an ongoing difference of opinion about whether media requires likable characters to be worth consuming. She thinks it does, whereas I am happy reading or watching stories with reprehensible leads. I don't need to empathize, I always say, I just need to be invested in the story. Well, I think I've finally met my match. And I'm having a hard time putting my finger on why. It's not just that the characters in this book lack redeeming qualities, I think, it's that they also lack goals or motivations beyond "cause havoc." I like Lawful Evil characters. I can read about Lawful Evil characters all day. Chaotic Evil is a lot harder for me to invest in.
Arguably, I guess, the two leads do have a motivation: their love for each other. But I was never sold on that emotion. As I've complained in other reviews, this is a book that uses sex as a synecdoche for love, and it doesn't work for me.
It was pretty obvious to me from about page 20 that the author comes from a fanfiction background, and a quick Google search confirmed it. That's not exactly a complaint--I like fanfiction. I read way more fanfiction than published fiction. But there are certain flaws that tend to pop up in fanfiction-turned-pro. One of those is flat worldbuilding; Files avoids that handily here. Another one is flat characterization. And I think she dodges that problem less well. In fanfiction, you don't have to develop why two characters care about each other (or why the audience should care about the characters), because the audience already knows
. Chess and Rook are written as though there's a source text that already defines their relationship, so the story can move on to the action. The problem is, that text doesn't exist. Without it, I don't care about them. I don't care about their relationship. And I'm not invested enough in the world to want to read the sequel.