|The futuristic 2176 series comes to an exciting, satisfying conclusion with The Scarlet Empress by Susan Grant. While Grant’s first entry in the series, The Adventures of Banzai Maguire, was frustratingly slow at times, Scarlet Empress provides plenty of butt-kicking action, romance and even a few thought-provoking messages about freedom and loyalty to one’s country.
When we last saw Bree “Banzai” Maguire, the 21st century cryogenically frozen pilot who had awoken into a much changed 22nd century world, she and her lover, SEAL Commander Tyler Armstrong had escaped the Kingdom of Asia and had thrown their lot in with the mysterious Voice of Freedom that was urging a people’s revolt against the dictatorships of the world. The primary target for the Voice of Freedom was the United Colonies of Earth, the former United States that had established world peace and stability at the cost of free speech and an elected government. Bree, somewhat against her will, had become a symbol of rebellion, and Ty had risked his military career to help her. The couple are now in the pirate-controlled Raft Cities, trying to decide on their next move, which isn’t easy when assassins from several countries are on their trail. Although Bree has joined up with the rebellion, she has never forgotten her wingman, Cameron “Scarlet” Tucker, who was on the same ill-fated mission that led to Bree’s strange new circumstances. Could Cam still be alive?
Cam is very much alive, but in much different circumstances than her best friend and leader. She wakes up from her long sleep to find herself in a rural, isolated Asian farming commune, where she is told that everything technological has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Cam doesn’t realize that her presence is of great interest to Kyber, prince of the Asian Empire, who is still infuriated that Banzai Maguire chose Tyler Armstrong and a life of danger over his generous albeit overbearing attention. When Kyber learns that Cam has been found, he disguises himself as a bounty hunter and sets off to capture her. The well-meaning but controlling prince doesn’t realize that he has met his match in the Southern belle who shoots from the hip both literally and figuratively. Their combustible relationship will have far-reaching effects – all the way to the United Colonies of Earth, where Bree and Ty are fighting for their lives and for the rebellion.
Grant does several things that show that she is very much in control of her story. First, she tackles the problem of creating a plausible romance with a hero who was introduced to readers in the previous book as a benevolent but arrogant dictator. Her solution: the heroine meets the man when he is utilizing a different persona so that she, as well as the readers, realize that there’s more to Kyber than the despot who wanted to keep Banzai Maguire in a gilded prison. While the romance with Cam sometimes strains credulity with its captive/captor inception, Grant is an expert at creating steamy chemistry, and by delving more deeply into Kyber’s psyche, Cam and the reader are able to more deeply understand the man behind the crown.
Secondly, my chief complaint about the first book in the series was that its titular heroine wasn’t allowed to do much butt-kicking. In this installment, however, Bree has to prove her emotional and physical courage and strength numerous times until she truly becomes the symbol of freedom that she has been portrayed as all along. The last hundred pages of the novel are almost unbearably suspenseful as the rebellion reaches its flash point and the Voice of Freedom’s very surprising identity is revealed. There’s definitely no shortage of action this time around!
Without becoming overly political, Grant makes some excellent points about the liberties that are given up in the name of security in the powerful but repressive futuristic version of our country. Nobody can question the author’s love for the United States, but there are warnings in her words about what might happen if we continue with some of the decisions made in the fear-laden environment that has followed the tragic events of 9/11.
But The Scarlet Empress is no political treatise; it’s a stirring adventure story. The novel does has a few flaws. Most notably, there are a few too many characters whose actions cause harm to others but are easily forgiven with the flimsy excuse that they didn’t fully know what was going on. Considering that these characters are leaders with great responsibility and authority, that defense is a cop-out. However, I predict that readers will be turning pages so quickly and breathlessly that they will hardly notice that lapse. Series co-authors Kathleen Nance, Liz Maverick and Patti O’Shea (whose heroines make brief cameo appearances in the story) are to be commended for their contributions, but it’s Grant who continues to set the standard for intelligent, exhilarating futuristic romance novels.