Making a Tinderbox (The Tinderbox Tales #1) by Emma Sterner-Radley is a fantasy novel set in a land on the brink of the industrial revolution. There are queens, kings and knights, peasants and city-dwellers – but also printing (books, newspapers), small industry and rumours of steam trains. The author calls this Gaslamp fantasy (as opposed to Steampunk).
Lady Elisandre, soon to be wed to a prince, wants out of an arranged marriage. Nessa, a farmer’s daughter, is in search of a better life and a new profession – not what her parents want. Together these two leave the small village for the nearest city, to find their fortunes, and to live on their own terms.
At first everything seems to go smoothly – despite a slight tension between the two young protagonists – but of course nothing is ever too easy. Nessa and Elise are both headstrong people, which naturally will cause some problems. The author promises “sexual tension, humour, looming danger, unique characters and booze-soaked adventures” and that promise is well and truly fulfilled.
At times the book felt like it was based on a tabletop role-playing game, with the main characters as player characters and others as non-player characters. One character especially could have been the game master, playing the helpful NPC who moves the story along, sometimes getting close to a deus ex machina. This didn’t really bother me (I love RPGs!) but the “helpful NPC” should maybe have stayed more in the background.
I love it when a fantasy story doesn’t take itself too seriously but plays with tropes and clichés, while still unabashedly using them. I’m also a sucker for sweet slow-burn romance so when someone combines these two, I’m a very happy reader indeed. Extra points for creating a world where gender or sexual identity can be just about anything without it being a big deal.