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Monday, May 28, 2012


Author:  Kate Cross (aka Kathryn Smith, Kate Locke)
Plot Type:  SMR, HIS, Steampunk
Ratings:  V4; S4; H2-3
Publisher and Titles:  Signet Eclipse
       Heart of Brass (5/2012)
       Touch of Steel (12/2012)
       Breath of Iron (8/2013)     

     This post was revised and updated on 9/9/13 to include a review of Breath of Iron, the third book in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 1 and 2:     

            BOOK 3:  Breath of Iron            
     Evelyn (Evie) Stone is the chief surgeon of the Wardens. In the opening scene, Evie is in Paris having a one-night fling with a handsome young doctor. As she walks home to her hotel, she is abducted by a long-time friend and wakes to find herself a prisoner on her ex-lover's airship. Evie and Captain Gavin MacRae had a passionate love affair that ended badly three years ago when she saved his life after he was grievously wounded and then walked out on him. The two still love one another, but each has hurt the other so deeply that both believe they there's no chance they will ever get back together.

     MacRae kidnaps Evie for her medical skills because one of his passengers (named Imogene) is unconscious with severe gunshot wounds, and Imogene has vital information that he needs. When Evie sees the severity of the woman's injuries, she calms down and saves her life. A few scenes later, MacRae confesses to Evie that Imogene is his new wife, and fur starts to fly.  

     Evie and MacRae spend 90% of the book ranting and raving at one another, hurting each other's feelings, and raking open past emotional wounds. Luckily, MacRae is a charming rogue with a wicked sense of humor, so their dialogue is mostly entertaining, although their torturous emotional relationship eventually begins to wear thin. That's mostly because Evie is so self-centered. She left MacRae because she couldn't bear the thought of his leaving her—either because of his death or because he got tired of her. Evie has a fear of commitment along with a major distrust of ever-after love, both of which stem from her unhappy childhood—raised by a single mother who was abandoned by Evie's father. MacRae is a scarred and battered risk taker who is now the captain of a pirate airship and is frequently on the wanted list in several countries. Will the two ever be able to work out their differences? Of course they will. This is, after all, a romance, and that means that, eventually, there is an HEA in their future. This romance plot takes up most of the story—much more so than in the previous two books.

     What action plot there is involves a traitor on board MacRae's airship. Here's how MacRae summarizes his situation: "He had an injured spy on his boat, her dead husband in the ice chest, his ex-lover in his cabin and a traitor in his crew. Just another day aboard the Queen V." (p. 108) As the story opens, that traitor has caused the death of a Warden agent, and he continues to cause problems—and more deaths—as the story advances. MacRae can't believe that one of his long-time crew members would turn on him, but the evidence says otherwise. Eventually, both MacRae and Evie are badly injured by the traitor, and as this happens they begin to understand each other's fears and emotions. MacRae has some deep secrets that he keeps from Evie—secrets that will affect both their lives in the final analysis. Just as in the previous book, the identity of the villain was clear to me early on in the story because the author drops some subtle hints (so read carefully).   

     The steampunk gadgetry in this series generally parallels modern inventions, so it made me smile to learn that the Wardens have IT specialists. In this series, though, IT doesn't stand for Information Technology, it stands for Irregular Transpiration. MacRae and Evie find that out the hard way when they have a run-in with a former human who was transmutated into a vicious, mindless Minotaur by a Greek IT team.

     Once again, this book is not as great as book 1. It was just O.K. for me, needing less emphasis on the one-note anguished romance and more complexity in the action plot.    

     Set in an alternate Victorian London (1898) during the Steam Age, the series follows the adventures and misadventures of members of a spy organization called the Wardens of the Realm (W.O.R.). The Wardens' bitter enemy is the Company, an equally skilled spy group. Here is one character's description of the two groups: "In the business of spying, the rivalry between the Wardens and the Company was the longest and the most volatile. To say that the two were on opposite sides would be an oversimplification. Sometimes they were on the same side, and even then they fought one another. No, it went beyond right and wrong. Their dissension was based on something more complex than morality. They were enemies hell-bent on destroying each other, but wouldn't know what to do without the other there to fight against. The only relationship he could compare it to would be a marriage between two people who despised each other but refused to separate." (p. 39)

     Since this is the Steam Age, both the Wardens and the Company use lots of steam-powered and spring-driven devices in their secretive operations. In addition, they are physically altering a growing number of their agents, using metal to construct various bones and installing metal shields for essential internal organs, including the heart and lungs. The metal they use is gregorite, the original name for titanium. If a person is badly injured—for example, gets his hand crushed in a riding accident—a doctor can replace that hand with a mechanical one made of gregorite and he's as good as new—actually, even stronger. 

     In this world, the upper classes depend on all types of machines to make life easier. For example, automatons scrub the floors of their mansions, mechanical horses pull their carriages, automated androids handle security, and robotic orchestras perform at their parties.

     Despite the futuristic steampunk machinery, this is still a Victorian society with its strict social mores and its patriarchal traditions. Although the English prime minister is a woman, men still run things, believing that a woman's place is at home, not out in the world. In each book of this series, an independent young women and a sexy alpha male meet, fall in love, and get their HEA.

            BOOK 1: Heart of Brass            
     As the story begins, Arden Grey (Lady Huntley) is assisting Scotland Yard on a murder case in which a young, aristocratic woman has been eviscerated. Inspector Grant calls on Arden because she has invented the Aetheric Remnant Oscillatory Transmutative Spectacles (AROTS), which allow her to visualize exactly what the murder victim saw in her last moments of life. Using the AROTS, Arden visualizes a male aristocrat with a horseshoe-shaped cravat pin, but she can't see his face. 

     Note: One of the on-going jokes in the series is that Arden is a mechanical genius who has invented a hand-held mechanical device called a Personal Hysteria Dissolution Mechanism that assists women with hysterics. If you can't figure out just what this handy little invention does, click HERE to read a plot summary of the movie, Hysteria. Click HERE to read a Wikipedia article on "Female Hysteria."

     As Arden is leaving the crime scene, she catches a glimpse of a man watching her from a warehouse rooftop. She is stunned when she recognizes him as her husband, Luke (Lucas Harris Stratford Grey, the Earl of Huntley), who has been missing for seven years and presumed dead by everyone but Arden. When Luke steals into Arden's bedroom that night, she awakens and calls him by name, but he seems not to recognize her and runs away. We soon learn that Luke disappeared because he was captured by the Company while he was searching for a traitor within the W.O.T.R. ranks. The Company performed surgery on his brain, causing him to lose all memory of his previous life. They renamed him "Number Five" and sent him out as an assassin, and his current assignment is to kill Arden.

     The plot initially follows two paths as Arden tries to figure out what's going on with Luke, and Luke begins to have flashes in which he remembers scenes from his previous life. Eventually, with the help of her friend Alastair, Arden captures Luke, and a W.O.T.R. doctor performs surgery to remove the memory-draining device that the Company inserted in his brain. The remainder of the story focuses on the couple as they realize that each is a very different person now, and that after seven long years of separation they must rebuild their lives from scratch. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Alastair fell in love with Arden while Luke was gone, and he's not exactly thrilled to have Luke back. Seven years ago, Arden was a submissive young woman who did whatever her husband commanded her to do. Now, she is an independent woman—a W.O.T.R. agent, a consultant for Scotland Yard, and a well-known inventor. Back then, Luke was a workaholic who left Arden alone much of the time, never discussing any of his W.O.T.R. assignments with her. On some of his assignments, he traveled with his former mistress. Arden had to learn about that mistress from a friend because Luke never admitted the relationship to her. can see that they have a lot of emotional history to work through if they are to earn their HEA.

     As the two work on their new relationship, two more story lines intertwine with the romance. First, Arden and Inspector Grant still must track down the murderer, who has struck again. Second, the Company sends its best agent to kill both Aden and Luke, so they have to figure out a way to trap him. 

     This is a solid series with well-developed characters and lots of action. The author does a great job of blending the steampunk aspects into the story line. Instead of overwhelming the plot (which is sometimes the case in other steampunk series) these details support various aspects of the investigation and add interest to our view of the everyday lives of the characters. Arden and Luke are complex characters, flawed but essentially on the side of the greater good. Arden has buried herself in her work and has learned to depend on alcohol to get her through her lonely days and nights. Luke realizes that in his former life, he was kind of a jerk, paying little attention to Arden's love of invention and leaving her alone while he went off on his spying adventures. Their journey back to true love is compelling, as they both make mistakes, jump to erroneous conclusions, begin to work as a team, and finally learn to trust and love one another. 

            BOOK 2:  Touch of Steel            
     This book tells the love story of Company spy Claire Brooks and Wardens of the Realm spy Alastair Payne, the Earl of Wolfred. We met Alastair in book 1 in his role as the best friend of the hero and wannabe lover of the heroine. In book 1, Alastair not only had to give up on his love for Arden, but he also fell for a Company sympathizer who set him up and then left him for dead, crushed under a carriage. At this point, Alastair is in the final stages of recovering from his injuries, and he is wary of female relationships. That attitude doesn't last long though, because at the beginning of this book, Alastair is called upon by the Wardens to go undercover with Claire in pursuit of a deadly, double-dealing spy named Stanton Howard.

     Claire has personal reasons for wanting to capture Howard because he is the Company traitor who killed her brother, Robert. She wants to know why Robert was murdered, and she is desperate to avenge his death. In the opening scene, Howard shoots Claire and pushes her off the roof of a building. The Wardens rescue her and make a deal that they won't kill her if she helps them capture Howard. Claire agrees even though she has secret plans to kill Howard herself, as slowly and painfully as possible. 

     The plot follows Claire and Alastair as they make a quick train trip to Scotland and then board a ship that is crossing the Atlantic. All the while, the two are falling for each other. (The captain of that ship is the hero of the next book.) They go through the usual paranormal romance procedure: first comes the sarcastic, teasing dialogue; then the "accidental" touches and soulful gazes; next, the first big kiss; and finally some steamy bedroom scenes. Even though they are extremely attracted to one another, they know that their romantic relationship is doomed. Alistair believes that Claire faces long-term imprisonment; Claire believes that when she kills Howard, the Wardens will immediately kill her. Of course, we (the readers) know that the couple is slated for their HEA, so we're not too worried.

     This book isn't as strong as book 1. I had no trouble at all figuring out the plot twist regarding Stanton Howard, and you won't either because the author telegraphs it all the way through. This isn't an awful book; it's just not as good as the first one—which was terrific—so it would have had to meet a very high standard, one that second books frequently miss. One weakness in the steampunk aspect of the story is that most of the gimmicks and gadgets that the characters use are carbon copies of modern-day inventions (e.g., cell phones, tasers, laptops). Steampunk is more fun when the gadgets are a bit more exotic.

     The third book will tell the romantic story of Warden surgeon Dr. Evelyn Stone and her ex-lover, ship captain Gavin MacRae. Book 2 has several scenes involving the two of them (separately) so we can ascertain that they are both good people and that they share a troubled past.  

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