Tempered and Engraved – No.4 & 5 of the St Croix Chronicles by Karina Cooper

Today I’ll be reviewing two books in preparation for reviewing the final episode, book No.6, of the St Croix Chronicles.  This review will definitely contain spoilers for previous books so please be aware of that.

If you’re unfamiliar with Cherry St Croix she’s led a very chequered past.  Orphaned at an early age and then sold into the circus her life was on a downward spiral involving crime and drugs until she was rescued by her guardian (Oliver Ashmore) and placed in one of the upper households (of London above) to be transformed into a lady!  Her past has a strange hold however and whilst she could languish in relative comfort she returns frequently to the streets of London below – where she has become a Collector (a bounty hunter) hired by the Veil and becoming more entangled with the lives of those within it’s grasp.  The Menagerie, and more to the point The Veil, are not for the faint hearted as Cherry is becoming all too aware – unfortunately she needs the money to fund her habit!

Tempered

At the start of Tempered Cherry has once again been rescued by her guardian who has literally plucked her from the grounds of the Menagerie to place her within the confines of a mansion, deep inside the countryside and away from temptation.  Ashmore intends to break Cherry of her addiction whether she wishes to be sober or not.

No.4 has a decidedly different feel to the first three books and one that I really liked.  The story is confined entirely to the strange mansion where Cherry is being held and due to this the novel has an oddly dark and gothic feel to it.  There are decaying wings, strange dreams, dark shadows where things lurk not to mention the suggestion of hidden laboratories.  It all has a lovely creepiness to it that speaks of a combination of Frankenstein and Udolpho.  At the start of the story we see Cherry brought to her lowest yet, the previous book saw her tormented by addiction and this book sees her struggle to break its hold – even if this isn’t voluntary!  We learn a good deal more about her Guardian – Ashmore and he really does turn into quite a character.  On top of this there are a number of twists – yes, I had the inkling when something didn’t feel quite right but even so when certain elements were revealed I was still a bit stunned!  Be prepared for surprises, not least of all, in the absence of some of the more steampunk elements of the story – the introduction of alchemy and the search for immortality!

Engraved

At the start of No.5 Cherry and Ashmore have agreed upon a plan for Cherry to return to London.  She may now be dry of her addiction – although admittedly this is always a constant struggle, but she’s not free of the feelings she holds for the Menagerie’s Circus Master – Hawke.  The last time Cherry was in his presence he betrayed her trust and yet still she would return to try and rescue him.  Things in London down under have changed drastically.  The fighting between the street gangs has escalated and is about to break out into all out war – unfortunately one of these gangs seems to have aligned themselves with the Veil and in doing so have acquired inhuman strength and killing ability and at the centre is Hawke!

I’m not going to deny that Cherry seems to spend a good deal of time running backwards and forwards in this book and sometimes I struggled to understand exactly what she thought she was achieving and between her dizzying episodes and Hawke acting like an animal the plot sometimes got a little muddled.  However, to be honest I just went with the story.  I have to hand it to Karina Cooper – she’s rather excellent at evoking the emotions and setting the scene.  When you’re in the midst of fight you can practically smell the fear, sweat and bloody, if there’s a fire you can feel the heat as it sears victims alive – and make no mistake, there’s plenty of action going on here!  Not to mention, a perfect setup for the final book!

I won’t deny that I have criticisms about Cherry – sometimes she doesn’t seem to think very clearly (to say the least), she’s self centred and she’s led a very shady existence – however, if you’ve followed the series from the start you’ll know her story and it will make things more understandable.  I would definitely say this is not a series that you could just start in the middle.  I think you need the gradual build up, the picture of place laying out and the history that has brought Cherry to her current self.  And, that makes it all the more satisfying that at the end of this story her actions felt more reasonable and thought through.

This is certainly a twist laden and entertaining tale.  Now, I will mention that I’m not really a romance reader and that includes PNR – so, I’m not an expert where either of those is involved – I think this series is described as Urban Fantasy but I’m inclined to also veer towards PNR, or at least say that this borders on it.  I’m not an expert on what constitutes PNR so perhaps somebody else can help me out with that aspect.  There is certainly a strong theme of love running through the book (whether or not people will admit it!) and lets just be honest there’s a tad of sex, although this isn’t what the story is all about.  Basically, adult themes, sex, drugs and violence are included and I can’t deny that Cooper can make a scene sizzle!  That’s all I’m saying. Personally, I find myself torn now as I really like Ashmore!

Anyway, on to No.6 and to find out how all this ends!  I have no doubt that it will be fast paced and written in Cooper’s tongue in cheek style.

Gilded (The St. Croix Chronicles #2) by Karina Cooper

Okay, so I finished the second of the St Croix Chronicles a few days ago but was literally stunned into silence and needed a few days to absorb events.  This book is quite the riot of emotions ending on a final note of utter shock.  I’ve tried to stay away from reviews for this series to avoid spoilers and it worked because the ending of this took me totally by surprise, and yet at the same time that it blew me off my feet with it’s unexpected quality it also felt sort of inevitable!

Gilded is the second in the St Croix series the first being Tarnished (my review here).  I really do recommend reading these books in order and not just jumping in at No.2.  Gilded pretty much starts off where Tarnished ended.  Cherry is determined to find out what took part in the underground tunnel (and I won’t say more for fear of spoilers).  We still have two killers on the loose on the streets of London down below and on top of this there now appears to be a new murderer on the scene – intent on killing professors from London’s finest educational establishments.  Aside from all of this Cherry is in debt to the menagerie, is being pursued by the Earl, castigated by the upper echelons of society and suffering illness from the side effects of her double life and secret addiction.  It’s quite daunting just to think about it.

Ms Cooper certainly doesn’t make it easy to review her books because there’s very little to say without giving away spoilers.  This is a new murder mystery and really apart from a few tidbits of information doesn’t really take us too much further in pursuit of Cherry’s original goals and yet there are certain elements that make you realise that so much is connected.  It’s a sort of bring them up to watch them fall instalment.

Gilded is quite a fast paced and intriguing instalment and in fact I would say even more enjoyable than the first (which is a surprise given the very short space that Mr Hawke makes an appearance for).  Cherry is without doubt a flawed character.  She makes mistakes and she can make you feel frustrated as anything.  But, I like her and given the constraints placed upon her in this faux Victorian era she’s actually very forward thinking.  She’s torn between wanting her friends and family to be happy and wanting to maintain her own individuality.  What’s a girl to do?  Aside from all that of course is that Cherry is basically, deep inside a good person.  She tries to make the right decisions.  She’s wound up in a situation where she’s indebted to the wrong sort – and this is a result of the night time activities she pursues in order to raise money to buy laudanum (which she only uses to quell her night terrors).  She also seems to have drawn a lot of negative attention both above and below London.  You can’t help feeling quite a lot of sympathy for her whilst also wanting to shake her occasionally!

Anyway, there are two new murders and clearly these are the work of somebody different from the Sweet Tooth and the Ripper.  The academia are being targeted and Cherry is given a riddle to solve which will unwittingly take her into the path of danger yet again.  The plot culminates in a fantastic masked ball which ends with a bang!

Murder, mystery, alchemy, fog, rippers, dashing Earls, sexy Micajah Hawke – and an ending that left me without words!  Yes, this feels like a guilty pleasure and yet I don’t actually feel guilty at all in fact, quite the opposite.  Bring on number 3.

 

 

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Just finished reading Boneshaker by Cherie Priest which is my (only just) October submission for Worlds Without End, Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge.  I loved this book.  It’s a seriously entertaining romping, steampunk adventure.  The main protagonists are a mother and son and we watch as they go in circles around each other in an almost despairingly frustrating fashion which is both fast moving and really compelling to read.

So, Briar and Zeke, mother and son.  They live in a less than comfortable condition and appear to be virtual outcasts.  Blair’s husband, now passed away apparently, was an inventor.  His last invention however was responsible for almost wiping out the city of Seattle.  A gold mining drill, built to dig through hundreds of feet of snow was set to test under the streets of Seattle causing massive destruction and mayhem leaving not only the collapse of many streets but the release of a noxious gas which kills and ultimately turns people into zombies – rotters as they’re now called.  In order to survive in the wake of this catastrophe the survivors built a massive wall around the perimeter of the blighted part of the city, not only to contain the zombies but also to prevent the spread of the gas which is too dense to breach the wall.

As you can imagine Briar and Zeke are not terribly popular.   Not only was Briar’s husband responsible for mass devastation but on the back of this Briar’s father caused further uproar when he returned to the doomed part of town to release the prisoners from jail before they could also be turned into the undead.  And, even though these events took place years ago bitter feelings still exist towards the two.  In an attempt to try and clear his father’s name Zeke, now a fairly headstrong teenager, decides to return to the blighted part of the city to find evidence.  And his mother returns to the same zone to try and find her son!  And so we have this dual tale where they both seem to circle each other during their individual adventures.

The blighted city is home not only to rotters.  Some people remained behind after the blight events took place and eke out a living in tunnels underground and boarded up places above.  Ways of traversing the city have been discovered and a number of rival factions exist.  It’s a dangerous place to live.  Of course there’s the ever present danger that the rotters present, not to mention the toxic gas that is becoming more concentrated by the year but one man in particular seems to be gaining a name and a reputation for himself and Briar and Zeke are about to come to his attention.

The setting is easy to imagine.  We have a sort of 1800s Seattle with a difference.  The author readily admits that she’s altered landmarks and historical events to fit in with the novel and after all if you’re reading about western type cowboys (and girls) flying around in dirigibles toting strange and weirdly fuelled weapons and fleeing from zombies then your imagination can certainly accommodate a few changes to history!

On top of this we have a number of strange and eccentric characters who we meet along the way, not to mention Briar is a great protagonist to read about.  There’s always an unknown element about the people who Briar and Zeke meet and whether or not they can really be trusted or whether they are acting out of ulterior motives.  I loved Lucy (no pun intended) and Princess not to mention Cly and Swakhammer and will gladly return to find out what eventually happened to them.

I also thought that using the different elements of gaining entry to the blighted city was interesting – Zeke using the tunnels and Briar using airship. It helped to give you a fuller picture of the city and was almost like a reflection of how the survivors lived within it’s confines – nobody lives on terra firma any more – you’re either under or over – and everyone wears masks.

I suppose if I had any criticisms at all they would probably relate to Zeke who at first I found a tiny little bit annoying.  He just seemed to trust people too easily and willing follow them, even when he had a bad feeling about it.  Of course he is still fairly young and I don’t think he ever expected the blighted city to be quite as bad as it actually was.  He was born after the catastrophe and so wouldn’t remember any of the former events that took place so I guess I forgave him eventually.  And, I suppose It must have been such a shock when he finally arrived not to mention the reality of how daunting his task truly was finally hitting home.

On the whole I found this a really enjoyable read.  I loved the pacing.   There was always something new and entertaining and I love the steampunk/horror/zombie fusion aspect.

I will definitely read the next in the series to find out what decisions Briar and Zeke make next.

I’m also submitting this for my Stainless Steel Droppings RIP event.  Check it out here.

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Just finished reading Agatha H and the Airship City which I absolutely loved.  Now, before I start I will confess that I’ve not read the webcomics that this book is based on so my opinion isn’t based on any sort of comparison in that respect.  But I thought this was excellent and such good fun.  In fact I felt like I read most of the story wearing a ridiculous grin.  The authors have managed to take this story and write it in such a way that it’s a fully fleshed out novel but still manages to give you the same feeling you have when you read a comic which is no small achievement.

The story is set in a world of dashing and fearless heros where madcap sparks (inventors if you will) have turned the Industrial Revolution into  chaos creating all sorts of weird and wonderful contraptions.  The Heterodyne Boys – heroes of the people – have disappeared mysteriously and are now only remembered through the story books that people read that recount their adventures.  With no deterrent the remaining mad scientists fight a war for supremacy which results in the ruthless Baron Klaus Wulfenbach gaining ultimate control.  He now rules the country with an iron fist, aided by his strange and diverse collection of robots, Jagerkin and constructs that he has accumulated through the spoils of war and which now form part of his vast army.

Agatha is a lab assistant at a University.  She never manages to quite succeed with any of her inventions and seems to be plagued by headaches that leave her unable to think straight.  She seems doomed to mediocrity and life conspires against her.  Particularly as she sets off for work one morning and is robbed by a couple of down on their luck soldiers who steal her precious locket – this is then followed by the lab where she assists being overthrown and finally results in Agatha being taken prisoner aboard the Baron’s massive airship castle.

The characters in the story are really what made it for me.  Lets start with the Jagermonsters – I loved these guys!  They are so funny.  They’re huge and supposedly imposing in a scary way but they are so great to read and they were just weird about Agatha – ‘Hey! Hyu iz in schombodes howz!  Is not goot manners to say dey schmells fonny!  Come on, how can you resist.  I kept reading all their dialogue to my other half – he was strangely unimpressed.  I guess you had to be deeply in the throes of the story!  Then there’s all the gadets and robots – particularly all of Agatha’s made up bits and pieces that follow her about like lovesick ducklings.  On top of that there are baddies and goodies galore.  A bunch of mixed age range children who are all there to give the Baron leverage over their parents – an assortment of characters these not to mention their odd nanny Von Pinn who is this huge and scary Miss Whiplash type of character (really, I’m not kidding) not to mention a sinister assassin called DuPree.  Anyway, take my word for it – there is no shortage of excellent, sinister, moustache twirling, funny, dashing or geeky characters.  And, I liked all of them!  Even, and in fact especially, the baddies!

On top of that Agatha is a real treat to read.  She starts the story just marvellously naive about herself and her own past.  You could be forgiven for thinking that she was going to be a real pushover instead of which she manages to be quite kickass, intelligent and have a fiery temper once riled up.  The Baron’s son, Gil, is soon to take a liking to Agatha – and this is where the ‘romance’ element comes into the story.  Don’t be distracted by that though or think this is all about gushing, love sick devotion.  The two of them have in common their intelligence and love of invention and the relationship side is only very briefly touched upon here – in fact it’s more of a whet your appetite for things to come I suspect.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and happily I think there’s at least one further instalment already waiting to be picked up which I’m really looking forward to.  I think what really comes across with this novel is that the author’s enjoyed themselves writing it and it really shows.

So, zany, funny, steampunk, touch of romance and a grand adventure.  How could it fail to please? Not to mention mechanical insects that turn people into revenants!

I’m including this as one of my World’s Without End, Women of Genre fiction reading challenges and also for my Stainless Steel Droppings Once Upon a Time event.