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Thursday, March 21, 2013


Author:  Liesel Schwarz   
Plot Type:  Steampunk with elements of romance and horror     
Ratings:  Violence-4; Sensuality-2; Humor-3  
Publisher and Titles:  Del Rey
            A Conspiracy of Alchemists (3/2013)
            A Clockwork Heart (8/2013)
            Sky Pirates (7/2014)   

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 6/12/16 to include a review of Sky Pirates, the third novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a reviews of the first two novels.  

          FAIR WARNING: My review  of Sky Pirates          
                      contains spoilers for the previous novels.                       
                           NOVEL 3:  Sky Pirates                              
    For romance and urban fantasy fans and readers of Gail Carriger’s Changeless and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, this thrilling historical fantasy adventure features warlocks, fairies, and the unforgettable heroine—the daring dirigible pilot Elle Chance—who navigates the realms between the Light and Shadow. 

     With her husband, Hugh Marsh, missing in the netherworld and presumed dead, Elle Chance loses herself in the task at hand: piloting the airship Water Lily on commissions across the globe. But as it turns out, her beloved is very much alive—the once-powerful warlock reduced to a wraith. When Water Lily is threatened by pirates, Elle will have to channel all her power as the Oracle—the keeper of the barrier between the two Realms—to try to save what she loves most. As the dark forces of Shadow converge around her, Elle must find a way to breach the curse that binds Marsh. But once released, will Marsh return to her—or is their love destined to die so that he can live?

     I somehow missed reading this third novel when it was published two years ago, so I'm adding it now to this ongoing review of the series. Unfortunately, Schwarz has not yet published a fourth book in this series, so we can only hope that she gives us a final novel that ties up all of the loose ends that are left hanging at the end of Sky Pirate

     As this novel opens, Elle is flying a female client from Khartoum to London with a shipment of antiquities from an ancient tomb. When the Water Lily is attacked by piratesspecifically by pirates under the command of Elle's former adversary Logan Dashwood—the passenger is killed and Elle is captured. Before the passenger dies, she tells Elle that she can find out how to save her lost husband, Hugh Marsh, by traveling to the temple at Angkor Wat (in Cambodia) and consulting a spirit woman bound into the temple's stone wall. 

     Meanwhile, Elle's bitter enemy, Patrice Chevalier, gathers his newly obtained dark powers and takes over the Order of Sacred Warlocks by killing the Council leader. He then summons a hellhound to track down Elle so that he can enslave her and use her Oracle powers as he wishes.

     The storyline follows Elle and Dashwood as they fly first to San Francisco and then to Cambodia with the Hellhound close behind (although Elle keeps Dashwood in the dark about all of her dark magical troubles). Schwarz periodically inserts scenes in which Patrice displays his viscously evil nature and lets us in on his plans for the future: world domination, of course, because that's what every supernatural villain yearns for. We also get a few scenes with Hugh and his watcher, Jack, although they are few and far between until the very last part of the book.

     Elle's journey is complicated by the fact that she finds herself physically attracted to Dashwood (and vice versa), but she tries to fight the attraction because she is still married to Marsh, even though he may never be more than a wraith in the Shadow World. By this point, Marsh is just a whispery, skeletal figure, wasting away more each time Elle catches a glimpse of him. All through the book, she beats herself up emotionally because she believes that she brings disaster and death to everyone she loves, or even befriends.

     The early scenes in which Elle settles down to work as Dashwood's navigator and becomes friends with his crew members are relatively peaceful. But after the Hound catches up with Elle, and after Patrice puts a bounty on her head, there is no more peace—just deadly attacks, airship crashes, and a final reckoning with Patrice and the Hound.

     As I said earlier, this book ends with a cliffhanger—a romantic cliffhanger—so we'll have to await a fourth novel to see who wins Elle's heart. According to information I found online, this is the final book in a three-book contract with Random House, so the fourth book—if it ever comes—might very well be either self-published or with another publisher.

     In any case, this third novel is quite good—much better, in fact, than the second. Elle has learned a lot of life lessons during the past year of so, and she's not the naïve, girlish adventurer she was back in book one. The development of the relationship between Elle and Dashwood is well handled—not an instant-lust situation by any means. Dashwood offers a shoulder to lean on and he’s a brave man who always has her back. It’s no wonder that Elle is attracted to him. All through the story, Elle is depressed about the fate of her husband, unsure that she can ever find him much less rescue him from his wraith state, and she is still trying to figure out just how to use and control her ever-expanding Oracle powers. I really hope that Schwarz returns to this story and provides a resolution. Even a novella would be welcome. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Sky Pirates on the novel's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

     Steampunk is a popular genre right now, and its definition varies from one definer to the next. On her web site, the author says that her favorite definition is this simple one: "Steampunk is the science of what could have been." Schwarz goes on to say that "Steampunk for me is Jane Austen meets Jules VerneBram Stoker meets Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins with a touch of H. Ryder Haggard thrown in for good measure...all chugging along with great big billows of steam. It's more a feeling and an atmosphere rather than genre-specific lines." In any case, the world of this series is filled with the usual gadgetry, goggles, and gears of traditional steampunk. One character's state-of-the-art car is "Fast as a bullet....With the dual reactor and new patented micro-condensers, we get about twenty miles to a gallon of water," which is pumped through portable hoses from the canals that border most roadways. The only steampunk element that is somewhat nontraditional is the slightly later time period: 1903, placing it on the cusp between the Victorian and Edwardian periods in merry old England. Click HERE to go to a page on the author's website where she discusses steampunk and provides a list of links to her favorite steampunk web sites.

     In this mythology, the Shadow is the supernatural world (including Warlocks, Alchemists, Nightwalkers [vampires], and various types of Fae), and the Light is the non-magical worldthe regular mortal world. "The balance between Light and Shadow is like a set of scales. If one side grows heavier than the other, the balance is upset and the world is thrown into chaos." (from A Conspiracy of Alchemists, p. 160)

     Each side is aware of the other, and, in fact, they interact. For example, here is an evening scene in  Paris in which "two electromancers...strolled down the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Behind them, the streetlights blinked on one by one as the little hermits ignited the glass-covered spark cores on top of the lampposts." (
from A Conspiracy of Alchemists,  p. 27) These electromancers light the streetlights for the Light world each evening using their Shadow talents. Most Light-side households employ brownies or house goblins from the Shadow side for cleaning and other types of housework. Steam-driven automatons do the heavy work, "made from shiny steel painted cream shades of light blue, yellow, or even red. Little puffs of steam escaped from their polished articulated legs as they ambled along." (from A Conspiracy of Alchemists, p. 134).

     The most powerful creatures on the Shadow side are the Warlocks, who are governed by the Brotherhood, the Order of Sacred Warlocks. The Council is generally opposed to scientific advances. As one character explains, "The Council does not care about science and progress. It is [that] very work...that causes the Shadow to shrink and diminish. For each new miraculous modern invention that sees the light of day, a creature of magic in the Shadow loses its place in this world and disappears." (from A Conspiracy of Alchemists, p. 151)

     The Alchemists, who would like to have the power of the Warlocks, are bound to serve the Nightwalkers for all eternity and are, in fact, the daylight keepers of the Nightwalker sects.   

                            NOVEL 1:  A Conspiracy of Alchemists                            
     The first book introduces the series heroine, Eleanor (Elle) Chance, an intelligent, pretty, and brave young woman in her early twenties who owns her own airship and runs solo cargo flights between England and France. As the story opens, her docking agent, Patrice Chevalier, asks her to carry an off-the-books cargo from Paris to London. Against her better judgment, Elle agrees, and the plot is in motion. When Elle is almost immediately abducted and robbed of the mysterious box that she was to transport, Patrice and his colleague, the handsome Mr. Hugh Marsh, rescue her and then accompany her to London on her airship. When they arrive at her Oxford home, they discover that Elle's father, an eccentric inventor and science professor, has been kidnapped. The rest of the story follows Elle and Marsh as they try to rescue Elle's father. 

     Elle soon learns that Marsh has an intimate knowledge of her family background as well as having his own nefarious reasons for staying by her side. Elle lost her mother when she was just a child and has always been told that her mother ran off with a cult and died as a result of her misadventures. Marsh tells her that that story is untrue and that her mother was actually an Oracle descended from the original Oracle of Delphi and that Elle is her successor. The oracle issue is the primary glitch in the romance that rapidly develops between Elle and Marsh, who turns out to be both a powerful Warlock and a member of English nobility: Viscount Greychester. Their relationship soon disintegrates into a tug of war as Marsh tries to convince Elle that she has a duty to both the Shadow and the Light worlds to take up her Oracle duties—a celibate life of virtual enslavement to the Warlocks—while she vehemently insists that she has no such powers and wants only to find her father and head back home to her happy life in Oxford. 

     The external complication in the plot comes in the form of a sociopathic Alchemist named Sir Eustace Abercrombie, a powerful industrialist who is determined to capture Elle and enslave her in order to drain her considerable powers for his own ends. Abercrombie is a by-the-numbers villain who overflows with melodramatic evil in every scene. In an innovative twist, his chocolate factory makes products for the Shadow side (like blood-filled chocolates for Nightwalkers), which reminds me of Kerrelyn Sparks' character, Roman Draganesti (in her STAKED SERIES), whose company manufactures blood-fortified liquors like Blisskey.

     Elle is definitely a spunky and independent character, but she is so achingly immature and mindlessly stubborn that she soon becomes quite annoying to the reader. Marsh, on the other hand, is so jaded and paternalistic, that it's hard to understand how he would ever fall so hard for this naive, contrary girl. In one on-the-mark comment, Marsh bluntly queries Elle, "Don't you sometimes get a little tired of being so constantly outraged?" (p. 183) Several of the supporting characters are straight-out stereotypes: the nutty professor, the cacklingly evil villain, the corrupt council member. 

     In another innovative touch, many chapters are preceded by a narration by an absinthe Fairy named Adele who absorbs herself into Elle's diamond bracelet in an early scene. She is obviously on Elle's side but plays mostly a passive-observer role until almost the end of the book.

     The strongest element in this series is the world-building, which is accomplished with grace and complexity without any awkward info dumping. The weakness is in the characters, who come off as relatively one-dimensional and predictable. Still, I will read the next book, which is kicked off on the very last page of this book with a mild cliffhanger. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from A Conspiracy of Alchemists on the novel's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                           NOVEL 2:  A Clockwork Heart                              
     Let me begin by saying that this book continues Schwarz's formula for the series: a psychotic, power-mad villain; a lead character put into life-changing mortal danger; and a dark, dark toneeven darker than book 1. This time around, Elle and Hugh (her very new husband) are having problems adjusting to their married state. Hugh expects that after he gave up his warlock powers and his immortality for her that Elle would make some compromises of her own by not flying off and leaving him alone most of the time. Elle, though, is immature enough to believe that she can continue to live just as she did before marriagemaking all of her own decisions, flying all the missions she chooses, and generally behaving in the usual me-centered manner that we saw so much of in book 1. Early in the story, they have a major argument about Elle's behavior and Hugh's expectations and Elle flies off to Shanghai, leaving Hugh behind. With a lot of lonely spare time on his hands, Hugh gets involved in some shadowy dealings that lead directly to his being turned into a zombie-like being, the result of having his heart torn from his chest and replaced by a clockwork device. (By the way, this is not a spoiler because the publisher includes a description of Hugh's tragic condition in the front-cover-flap blurb.)

     Essentially, the plot follows Elle as she and the Baroness Loisa Belododia (a vampire friend of Hugh's) team up with some unlikely acquaintances to rescue Hugh, figure out exactly what happened to him, and try to fix him. The story's villain is Clothilde, an elemental witch with power over water and weather, including lightning. She has been hired by the nefarious Consortium to manufacture an army of unstoppable soldiers, each with a clockwork heart. The Consortium is a powerful and greedy group of international financiers who control the financial markets of the world. Clothilde is also known as La Dame Blanchea lady in white: "As white as sea-bleached bone, [her hair] reached down to her knees. Her skin was pale and fine; her features perfectly molded as if from the finest porcelain. Her lips were bloodless and sculpted, the face of a marble statue." (p. 16) Clothilde is a creature of the Shadow, forbidden to do harm in the Light, but she arrogantly believes that she is so powerful that she can do whatever she wishes. She plans to double cross the Consortium and keep the armyand Hugh Marshfor herself. Clothilde's plan requires the power produced by electromancers "who harvested lightning and other forms of static electricity that they combined with their Shadow magic to turn into spark, which is the blue liquid that powered the steam engines, which in turn ran the world." (p. 61)

     In addition to her frantic search for Hugh, Elle is also trying to settle in with her Oracle powers, which she has been using for just six months. One of the downsides is that she must constantly contend with the irritating mental voices of the previous Oracles, who either criticize her or give her cryptic advice. As the Oracle, Elle is responsible for keeping the Shadow and the Light in balance. "The realms of Light and Shadow lay like mirror images on one another....On the Light side lay the world of man. It was a place of progress, enlightenment, and science: the modern world. On the Shadow side was the ancient magical side where creatures spoken of in myth and folklore dwelled forevermore. Like the spine that holds the many pages of a book together,...[Elle] was the spine, the binding force that held everything together." (p. 53) 

     Although Schwarz is a good story teller, she stretches the limits here when she stuffs Christabel Pankhurst and her suffragettes into the story line. Also, the opening scene in which Elle wins an airship in a poker game goes on far too long for its eventual weak pay-off. In the most awkward scenethe requisite showdown that climaxes the novelthe author gathers together several unlikely and disparate groups, turning them into a deus ex machina that leaps out of nowhere into the heart of the action. The story ends on a sad note, with several loose plot threads that will no doubt form the plot for the third novel.

     The strongest element in this book is the development of Elle's character. By the end, Elle has been beaten down into submission by her terrible losses, and she is no longer the naive and immature girl that she was in the beginning. Although Hugh's final fate is not clear, we do get evidence that he will continue to be part of the action. 

     All in all, I'd have to give this book a grade of C+. The story line moves along nicely, with compelling action, and angst-filled emotion, but it suffers from for the awkward inclusion of outsiders. The pervasive, sometimes suffocating, darkness of the story could have been relieved by a bit more comic reliefa role I assume was supposed to have been played by Jasper and his supernatural groupies. I do admit, though, that I am planning to read the next book just to see what happens to Hugh. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from A Clockwork Heart on the novel's page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

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