Tarnished by Karina Cooper (No 1 of the St Croix Chronicles)
I just finished reading Tarnished, the first in the St Croix Chronicles. I really enjoyed this, part of me feels like it’s a guilty pleasure. Let’s face it, there is a rather hot guy in this book (well, some might think two in fact), part of me thinks it’s just really good fun (which always sounds like it’s a derogatory description even though it’s not) and partly because there’s a mystery here (unresolved) all rolled up in old fashioned gothic type stories that bring to mind a strange mash up of Frankenstein and tales of the Ripper, brought together in a foggy, dark steampunkish London with a strange criminal underworld. What’s not to like really?
This series brings to us a new Victorian London. Part steampunk, part mysterious gothic horror and by the looks of this first book giving a little shout out to the style of a penny dreadful type series. London has literally been split into two – and I’m not talking about the North and the South here but the upper and the lower. Using stilts and all sorts of other weird and wonderful contraptions the upper echelons of London have actually moved above ground to escape from the thick fog (not to mention the criminal underworld). Cherry St Croix is a young lady of means (or at least she will be when she comes of an age to inherit). She lives in London (above ground) in a rather lovely house with a collection of servants and yet – during the dark of night she sneaks below ground to undertake her role as collector. A role that helps to feed her opium habit.
Cherry is indeed set to inherit a fortune but not more than a few years ago her fortunes were somewhat different. Her mother and (slightly mad) father died and she became an orphan. She became part of a circus, living life as a young criminal and being fed opium. She was of course rescued, set up in a fashionable abode above ground and instructed in the ways of a lady. Of course the upper classes can’t really forgive her background – a beautiful mother with wealth and status who married beneath her status to a mad scientist – the horror! Cherry is a character with a past. A past that she can’t forget and that leads her over and over again into dangerous situations that would give the ladies above palpitations.
I’m not saying Cherry is perfect – I mean she’s got a serious habit going on here and I’m not referring to sneaking out of an evening dressed in trousers! (smelling salts anyone…) However, in her defence, to date she has lead a rather strange and frightening life and she has the nightmares to prove it. Her habits stem from a desire to sleep, if not well, at least without the presence of demons.
Anyway, Cherry collects – which basically means that, she brings people in with outstanding debts or other misdemeanours and is paid a fee appropriate to the case – she doesn’t accept certain jobs, such as children and she doesn’t take on murders. Over the few years she has undertaken this role, sneaking out of a night and then sleeping in bed late during the day, she has developed a sort of network of maybe not friends, but at least people that she could rely on in a pinch. She knows her way around and how to handle herself but in a way that has lead her into a certain sort of complacency.
This story is the set up for future books in the series. There’s a rather dreadful murderer called The Sweet Tooth who appears to be attacking and killing Sweets (aka ladies of the night) and maybe taking body parts for some nefarious purpose! Could this become a potential collection job for Cherry. It’s a dangerous mission involving underground tunnels and abandoned railway yards – not to mention the attention of the Menagerie – the Menagerie is very much a ‘below’ London establishment (although it wouldn’t surprise me at all if a few of the upper inhabitants paid it a visit). It seems to have oriental roots and is strictly controlled by the Veil and run by Micajah (sometimes known as Cage). It’s a pleasure zone but not one you would want to cross lightly.
I won’t really go too much more into the plot. It involves a few twists along the way. A book of opposites. Above and Below. Good and Bad. Paranormal and Normal. Upper classes and lower.
This book includes so much. There’s the steampunk aspect, the mystery, the murders, the mad scientists and the strange and macabre. As well as that there is a brewing romance which in no way takes over the story but adds a certain element of spice that will surely heat up in further instalments. It’s certainly not a serious book and it in now way intends to be so (or at least that’s my take) but it was a very enjoyable read and I have the next two waiting to be read already!