My impression:A high fantasy novel with steampunk elements, featuring an intrepid female protagonist and a stone-faced, ninja-like assassin who simply have to work together and can’t help liking each other more and more – what can go wrong? Add to that a handful of colourful secondary characters: an elderly professor, drowning his sorrows in wine, a handsome and vain swordsman, a surly street rat dabbing in magic, a young and idealistic emperor who, living in a splendid isolation, is being slowly poisoned by his closest advisor…sounds so nice, right? And yet…Ok, let’s start on a positive note. The camraderie and interaction between the characters themselves was the best thing about this book, and honestly, it could be quite humorous at times. And here my praise stops - even it did not make up for the shortcomings in the main leads and the story itself.Somehow neither the feisty Amaranthe Lokdon, nor the mysterious and deadly effective Sicarius, always clad in fitted dark clothing, won my heart. Ok, I admit it, perhaps it is too early to judge them so harsh, it is just the first part of a long series but they all seemed a tad too schematic - to a point when I could easily guess their thoughts and choices even before they opened their mouths or did anything. Their roles were also pretty clear from the very beginning. Maldynado, the most handsome gigolo and coxcomb in the city, and Books, the unhappy prof turned drunkard, were destined to provide comic relief whenever the sour Sicarius and the surly former gang member, Aksytr, were making the narration uncomfortably stiff. Amaranthe was there to attract trouble and then save the day, the emperor and the rest of her band from venal courtiers, sadistic magicians, brutal enforcers but mainly from themselves. Sometimes, I admit, she was being sweet, but more often she was obnoxiously noble – to such a point that I had to roll my eyes and remind myself of some of those deliciously dark antiheroes who pick their teeth with honourable men and women. It is such a kind of heroine which unleashes my worst instincts. Her goodness of heart is supposed to turn even the most hard-hearted criminal into her ally, she outwits the most powerful and corrupt politicians in the empire, while outthinking the most devious foreign spies and wizards. Reading about it you better never ask yourself ‘how come’ because the moment you do so you are doomed and the whole reading enjoyment is evaporating like champagne bubbles.Now there is the romance between Amaranthe and Sicarius. Perhaps not a bad idea per se; still I couldn’t forgive the fact that it has been moving slower than a drugged sloth in a sheepskin catsuit on a greased branch; I know the purpose of that pacing – I don’t doubt that the romance will be artificially dragged on and on until the very last installment (the series features seven books, no mean feat) where most probably those two will finally kiss and proclaim that they love each other. Still I resent it. It’s like buttering a slice of bread with just a fraction of a normal portion you need to do it right - frustrating to say the least of it.The action is nonstop – it is one of these novels which can make you almost physically tired. Amaranthe gets in so many scrapes and scuffles, is captured, escapes, is recaptured, escapes again... I forget how many times. Her captors are pretty inept and some of her escapes are pretty implausible so you should keep a very tight control on the logical part of your mind while reading about them. Now those names…Maldynado? Seriously? Why not marinade when we are already there? Sicarius? Sure, otherwise we wouldn’t guess he is a perfect, cold-blooded killing machine. Emperor Sespian? Why stop short of thespian? The capital of the empire is called…Stumps *rolleye* because no other name would be more imperial. The main baddie’s name is Hollowcrest, making you wonder why the young Emperor trusted him at all…oh wait, he was so naïve and trusting, poor thing, he most probably couldn’t help himself even if all his excuses ring a bit hollow.Final verdict:Definitely something for younger/less blasé readers than me. It might be just because of my dark fantasy fixation but I think the only way to enjoy this novel is to read it as a comedy, ignoring the missteps as far as the plot goes and laughing at the characters mercilessly. I don't know if it is enough to make me pick the second book.