I picked up the first of Kim Knox’s three Agamemnon Frost novellas after one was reviewed at Dear Author. While I didn’t like the series as much as Mary Kate did (they were all in the C range for me), I enjoyed them enough to keep going. I love the concept: a dash of Holmes and Watson to the m/m romance, a pinch of the Scarlet Pimpernel (these elements turned out to be pretty underdeveloped), a little steampunk, and some classic Victorian/B-movie sci fi with invading Martians and their crazy machines (these are the best bits). The plots are fast-moving and the adventure is fun.
Early in the first novella, Mason, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan (helloooo, Watson!) and is now Agamemnon Frost’s temporary valet, is turned into an automaton by Pandarus, a Martian who’s been sent to Earth as a kind of advance scout. Frost has already undergone the same transformation. But the change is imperfect. Though Mason can hear the voice of Pandarus, his Ilarches (I didn’t know what to make of the Latin terms/Classical references in the books), in his head and is sometimes compelled to do Pandarus’ bidding, he’s also able to resist, in part because of his connection to Frost. This theme–what does it mean to be human, where’s the line between human and machine?–is one I always enjoy, but I’ve read more complex explorations of it.
I have mixed feelings about the trend towards shorter works and serialization in romance publishing. If it leads to narrative experimentation, cool; if it leads to underdeveloped books and cash grabbing, not so cool. This series embodied some of the problems I see with the trend.
The total word-count of the novellas is about 85,000, a reasonable if shortish length for a novel. At $1.99 each, the total price is similar to a mass-market novel. So that’s fine. And I thought Knox effectively gave each novella a stand-alone piece of the Mars Attacks! part of the plot while still building an overall arc to a big finish. Each episode has a distinct quest/mystery, a particular way to foil the Martians that’s resolved at the end without cliffhangers. Think of the Harry Potter series, for instance. (The titles are even similar: Agamemnon Frost and the….) So in that sense, this was an effective use of shorter works and serialization. On the other hand, I thought the romance, and to a lesser extent the world-building, suffered from this structure, and a single longer plot arc in one volume might have allowed more development.
I expect this kind of story to be light on the world-building, certainly on the science. I enjoyed the mad-scientist technology: machines that send tendrils of copper into bodies and hollow them out, replacing some of their human biology with Martian technology; copper disks that serve as communicators; aeolipiles, vehicles that zoom along 20 feet in the air. But at times I was really confused and wanted things to be better explained. How is a kardax different from an automaton like Mason, except for being female? And then there are the koile, people who are even more hollowed out than automata and thus become inhabitable by Pandarus, but also, if dead and sort of . . . turned to stone? . . . become some kind of transporter that allows people and ships to move from one space to another. Because they’re hollow? I felt lost in the middle volume, especially.
There were occasional issues with the historical world-building, as well–or maybe just awkwardness in the writing. At the start of the first book, for instance, we’re told that there is “an … understanding between Frost and Miss Theodora,” and that her father wants them to marry. But in the drawing-room, Theodora’s mother says “Let me present Mr. Agamemnon Frost” and Theodora curtsies. So I thought they had never met before and this was an arranged marriage. Later, when Mason is jealous of Frost’s supposed feelings for Theodora, it felt fake to me because I thought the two didn’t know each other at all. But probably I just got the wrong impression in that first scene. It’s never really clear how well Frost knows Theodora, though.
The Relationship–and the Writing
Mary Kate at Dear Author called these books erotic. I would not, unless by that you mean that the connection between Frost and Mason seemed largely physical. There is not much but mental lusting, hot looks, and the occasional kiss until the end of the final novella. Which is fine. But. I found the romantic elements incredibly frustrating because they cycled repeatedly through the same dynamic.
His desire (and growing–but why? I never knew–feelings) for Frost help Mason keep the voice of his Ilarches, which pushes him to betray the humans, at bay. The Martians are interested only in ambition and world domination; pleasure, desire and love are human qualities. “You’re mine, not his,” Frost tells Mason. This is a familiar theme, but I like it. The problem is that it’s demonstrated in the same way over and over and over. How many times does the scent of Frost bring Mason back to himself? Well, I did a search and “sandalwood and vanilla” came up five or six times in each novella. By book three, when Knox writes that Mason “never tired of those scents,” I wrote “but I did!” in my notes. I’d put “STFU” on the previous reference. Obviously, it grated.
Frost’s scent without the particulars, and/or his hot gaze, are mentioned just as often. I felt the editor should have stepped in here and helped Knox move the romance forward rather than spinning its wheels. In the last half of the last novella, it finally got somewhere, and I found the big finish pretty satisfying (in the innuendo way and in the saving the world way).
Also, the pronoun problem of m/m was pronounced. (Sorry). I kept having to re-read a sentence because I couldn’t figure out which character he/him/his referred to, as in “His gaze slid to Mason, and the look caught in his chest.” (Even once I’d sorted out that the chest was Mason’s, I found this awkward). I can see the value of an editor who reads a lot of m/m and has a repertoire of strategies for solving this problem.
So a mixed bag for me, but if you like the concept, you might enjoy these–especially if a well-developed romance isn’t that important to your enjoyment of light science fiction.