Since I began my quest looking for Feminist Romance, I've had a lot of recommendations fall flat. Most were just the standard "strong heroine" trope of a kick-butt, sassy lady devoid of any supposedly "feminine" emotion like sadness or despair. Some were allegedly feminist in that they bashed men, which is not part of my value set. Some were just terribly written with boring, go-nowhere plots.
But in Ankaret Wells' "Firebrand" - recommended by folks on my Goodreads Feminist Romance group - I finally found what I was looking for: a romantic story that fits my feminist values without being a polemic, and a thoroughly enjoyable adventure with fully-rounded characters I came to genuinely care about.
The story isn't about feminism, and it doesn't need to be. It's about a woman - told in her first-person voice - who has just lost her mother and not long before was widowed, though her husband's death was clearly no loss. Kadia begins the story in the somewhat-stunned position of trying to figure out her place amidst these deaths when, by virtue of her mother's will, she and her new airship become prizes sought by the most powerful men in Wells' extremely well-developed world of an expanding empire versus last-ditch holdout provinces. Through a mixture of self-empowerment and being tossed about by forces outside of her control, Kadia gets caught up in intrigue upon intrigue and, of course, a romance.
The romance element is very nicely done, with enough questions about how things will turn out to keep it interesting. The sex scenes are lovely for someone like me who likes fairly normal heterosexual love scenes without any of the currently trendy faux-BDSM stuff. If you're looking for exotic, non-het, multiple-appliances-involved sex, "Firebrand" isn't for you. It's for the rest of us who are still happy with the main thrust (heh) coming (heh heh) from the love and passion of the characters instead of slapped-on kink for kink's sake.
Kadia as a character has her moments of impressive resolve and strength, but also entirely human moments of despair and longing. She is three-dimensional, her voice differs from other characters in the story, and even when she screws up she's inherently likable to the reader.
The genre is steampunk romance, and this is the first steampunk book I've read since that's usually not my cup of clockwork tea. But this is a solid story independent of its genre. The genre stuff forms the setting, the background, and the stage but is not a dictator over the characters. The people are just that: people, not puppets made to fit genre requirements, and it was very refreshing to read a book where I genuinely cared about what happened to the humans (and not-entirely humans) inside.
"Firebrand" isn't a world-changing, life-altering book. It's exactly what it should be: a great story that doesn't rely on outdated anti-feminist tropes. I loved it and truly hope there'll be a sequel.