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Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire by Dan Hanks

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire by Dan Hanks
4.25
Book Name: Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire
Author: Dan Hanks
Publisher(s): Angry Robot
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Historical Fantasy / Adventure
Release Date: September 8, 2020

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire is a fantastical pulp novel set during the 1950s. Captain Samantha Moxley herself is a retired British pilot who fought against the Nazis both in the air and on land. After that, she was recruited by an arcane and ruthless arm of the US government to help in tracking down and either eliminating or acquiring supernatural items and threats. This group, the Nine, proved less ethical than Samantha thought, and she parts with them on bad terms. But the search for the keys to a lost archive of incalculable occult power throws the good Captain back into her former employers’ path, with explosive results.

This book owes a lot to Indian Jones and similar pulpy fare. World-weary dialogue. Brawls on moving vehicles. Ancient tombs festooned with ridiculously elaborate death-traps intended to separate the ‘worthy’ from the ‘unworthy’.

(Seriously, one trap uses lava, where did that come from? How do you store lava? It made me flashback to Skies of Arcadia and now I’m really showing my age.)

The cast is filled out with professors, archaeologists, sinister government agents, a corrupt general, a battered psychic and dozens of disposable goons. Also, Samantha’s younger sister Jess, an adventurer and explorer in her own right who’s just as strong-willed as Sam, albeit far less trained in violence.

Though she can throw a punch or fire a pistol with the best of them, Samantha herself isn’t a two-dimensional pulp protagonist. She has an enlightened view of the world, questioning the cruelty and arrogance of the colonialist powers in a very modern fashion, perhaps to the point of anachronism. She’s also beaten down and haunted by the events of her past and present. She repeatedly questions her own motives and decisions and wonders if the path she’s on is right. Despite this introspection, she clashes repeatedly with her sister and father, highlighting the difficult decisions she’s made in the past.

There are certain criticisms that are often levelled at male authors writing female characters. I’m a cis-male writer myself, so take my two cents for what it’s worth, but I didn’t spot any of those problems in this book. Sam isn’t sexualised or commodified. Her personality isn’t based around her gender. She neither resents nor envies men. She doesn’t present as ‘femme’ nor does she seethe with rage against all things ‘girly’. She’s just a person, with depth and insecurities and flawed relationships.

(Mild Trigger Warning: There is a brief mention of the potential fate of a woman who falls into enemy hands in this book. But that threat is neither carried out nor described.)

The book doesn’t dwell on the unusual nature of a woman who saw active combat in the RAF and fought alongside Allied troops on land. (It’s not as unlikely as you might imagine, women fought in resistance movements across Europe and the Russians had a corps of female fighter pilots nicknamed ‘night-witches’. I’m sure that research into other theatres of war would turn up more female war-heroes.)

The villain of the piece has the remains of a conscience and is a bit conflicted about what he’s doing, which makes him more interesting than the standard moustache-twirler.

The book is fairly short and romps along at a good pace. After a brief introduction set during the tail end of World War II, it sets off at a run and rarely slows down after that, filling its page count with brawls, chases and shootouts (sometimes all three at once). We hop between a few interesting locations as well, from New York to the catacombs of Paris to Egypt. Hanks makes time for character development and plot exposition, allowing his cast to snipe at each other, display their personalities and work through some of their shared demons. But, like the director of an action film, he clearly made the conscious decision to skip over any dull scenes of travel or waiting that don’t directly move the plot forward. It was a good decision.

“God damn shitsville on a stick! Couldn’t the people who want to kill me just once—just this once—have got held up in traffic or something?”

The setting is clearly inspired by Indiana Jones but is even more fantastical. Dragon-men dogfight with a seaplane. Interdimensional devices are used as weapons. The restless dead are summoned to battle. Hideous experiments create deranged superhumans. In other words, fans of Hellboy or The Mummy films (the good ones with Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser) will be right at home.

The weirdness is balanced out by the historical setting. Hanks has clearly done some research into the 1950s and has sprinkled little period-appropriate details into his narrative that make it feel very plausible.

The writing itself is competent and feels natural; I was never tripped up or thrown out of the story by awkward phrasing. Hanks has an eye for an effective simile or piece of description, too. It’s not poetry but it does what it sets out to do—make for a fun read.

“Their black heels clicked furiously, like a typing pool under deadline, as they headed for the safety of the subway.”

“Jess held her nerve as she gazed down at his unmoving corpse as it slid further onto one of the spikes, even as she felt the vestiges of her last meal try to punch its way out of her throat.”

The ending of the book didn’t entirely convince me. But it left the door open for plenty more adventures and I’m happy it did.

This is a good bit of well-written action you can just sit down and enjoy. It treads a well-worn path but freshens it up with good characters and a nicely weird setting. If you like pulp, urban fantasy or anything with plenty of action, I recommend you check this book out.

Disclaimer: I received a digital copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar David Menashy says:

    Excellent review that definitely makes me want to seek out the audiobook. Thanks!

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