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Friday, December 6, 2013


Author:  Delphine Dryden
Plot Type:  Steampunk; Soul-Mate Romance (SMR)     
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality4; Humor3 
Publisher and Titles:  Berkley Sensation
           Gossamer Wing (11/2013 )
           Scarlet Devices (2/2014)
           Gilded Lily (7/2014)    

     This post was revised and updated on 7/26/14 to include a review of Gilded Lily, the third novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels.    

               NOVEL 3:  Gilded Lily                 
     If you are keeping up with the series, you will remember that the Gilded Lily is the small submersible (submarine) that was piloted by Charlotte Moncrieffe when she went off on a spying escapade in the first novel. You might also remember that Charlotte's true love, Dexter, worked on an undersea seismograph at a British spy center off the French coast. Both the Gilded Lily and the seismograph play important parts in this novel.     

     The hero of the third novel is Lord Barnabas Smith-Grenville, who was an early drop-out in the cross-country race featured in Scarlet Devices. Barnabas had joined the race as part of his search for his missing younger brother, Phineas. Phin is a disgraced military officer who is rumored to have become an opium addict, but Barnabas can't believe that is true. As the story opens, Barnabas has just arrived in London, where he has his first undercover assignment for the Crown. Unfortunately, that assignment isn't very exciting. Barnabas is charged with posing as a suitor for Rutherford Murcheson's daughter, Frederique ("Freddie"), and then spying on her—reporting back on where she goes, what she does, and the people with whom she interacts. Murcheson views his daughter as being too independent for her own good, so he has vowed to keep her in check. Murcheson is a big shot in the British spy system, so Barnabas is determined to succeed on this mission even though he sees it as a complete waste of his time and talents.

     Freddie is a headstrong rebel who has turned down many suitable marriage proposals and is now basically a social pariahmuch to her personal satisfaction. As a means of dealing with the boredom of her upper-class life, Freddie disguises herself in men's clothing, calls herself Fred Merchant, and  regularly sneaks out of her house and into the rougher parts of London to work as a tinkeran amateur makesmithrepairing various mechanical devices for her loyal clients, none of whom know her true identity.

     Freddie sees through Barnabas's undercover ploy immediatelyher father has tried this trick beforebut what she doesn't count on is that Barnabas recognizes "Frederique" as "Fred," the tinker he saw on the street while on his way to the Murcheson estate. Here, Freddie muses about the status of their relationship: "They were blackmailing each other. Freddie tried to frame the dilemma in some other way but could find no other means to describe it. She had seen through Lord Smith-Grenville's cover instantly and could ruin his reputation with her father with a word. But Smith-Grenville knew of Freddie's secret identity as a seeming male makesmith-tinker. He could rat her out at any time too." (p. 29) Since they get along well enough, they decide to trust one another, and soon Barnabasagainst his will and common sensegets dragged into Freddie's adventures.

     The plot focuses on three concurrent series of events:
   >1. Something is attacking fishing boats and killing fisherman. The survivors tell tales of a gigantic monster that surges up from the depths and pulls men from their boats with its long tentacles.  

   >2. In the aftermath of Lord Orm's downfall in the Dominions (which took place at the end of Scarlet Devices), Orm's London operation is still in operation, headed by Orm's bastard half-brother, Rollo Furneval. Rollo is a hardhearted, pragmatic thug who wants to make as much money as possible from the huge stock of opium he has in his warehouse on the London docks.     

   >3. Murcheson has connections with Britain's secret undersea spy center in the Atlantic Ocean off the French coast. Since this is an earthquake zone, the center has a huge seismograph that not only graphs the severity of the earthquakes, but also predicts them. Unfortunately, some of the undersea seismographic stations have been destroyed, and Murcheson needs to discover the identities of the saboteurs.  

     The story is narrated primarily by Barnabas and Freddie as they involve themselves in all three of the story lines and fall in love along the way. The plot is relatively complex as the Frederique-Lord Barnabas society couple and the Fred-Barnie tinkers alternate their identities as they instigate various dangerous adventures in both high and low society. Late in the book, Freddie summarizes their precarious situation: "They had been impersonating military officers, stealing government property, were probably being hunted by smugglers and maybe also facing encounters with giant, rampaging squid things." (p. 204) 

     Unlike Scarlet Devices, this novel is heavy on action and light on romance. The intrepid couple gets into all kinds of trouble—underground, undersea, and above ground. Eventually, Phineas turns up in a disguise that has been heavily telegraphed to the reader but that comes as a complete shock to Barnabas.

     This book has a more complex plot then the previous two novels, and it occasionally gets a bit convoluted, mostly because none of the main characters  (good guys and bad guys alike) know the full truth about what's going on until the very end of the book. The lead characters are fairly well developed and are quite likable individuals. Although both Freddie and Barnabas feel pressured by their families, neither (at first) understands the difficulties of the other's situation. Freddie feels handicapped by her gender; if she were a man, she could lead the life she wants and become a makesmith. Barnabas feels the pressure of being an Earl's elder son, which means that sooner or later he will be forced to move to New York and handle the family estate for the rest of his life. Eventually, the two grow to understand one another, and love blooms.

     This is another solid story in an entertaining series. If the plot drags in a few spots, don't worry, because the final chapters speed along at a fast clip. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Gilded Lily on the book's page. Just click on the book cover at the top of that page.

      The steampunk series is set in an alternate history of the world. The author explains on her web site that her world-building "started with one premise: George Washington died…near the end of the French and Indian War….Because of this, the budding [American] revolution was deprived of both Washington's expertise in British military procedures, and his disgruntlement with the British military bureaucracy that probably contributed to his willingness to side with the revolutionaries. In short, without Washington, things transpired such that in the end, the revolution was quelled before it ever really gathered…steam." After the war, King George III established landed titles in America and handed them out to the younger sons of British nobility who had no chance at home of property, wealth, or political power.   

Under these conditions, North America (called British Dominions of North America) developed into a very different land, as shown on this map. Instead of the United States of America, the country became the American Dominions. As the newly titled British lords came to the Dominions and assembled their households, they turned toward the Western frontier to make their fortunes.   

     The time frame for the series is unspecified. Here's what the author has to say about it: "Although I may leave clues as to the approximate era in which STEAM AND SEDUCTION is set, I will never specify an actual year. You are welcome to guess, of course! Here’s a hint: despite the fashion aesthetic, it probably isn’t set in the Victorian era [1837-1901]. You'll find another hint on the cover of Gossamer Wing." The only hint that I found on the book cover is an image of the Eiffel Tower, which was completed in 1889. So…perhaps we're looking at the early years of the 20th century.

     Dryden's steampunk technology includes the usual gears, gadgets, steam-power, and clockwork, but not the aether. She imagines a "what-if" world in which certain key inventions were never created (like the internal combustion engine). Regarding the absence of aether, she says this: "Even without the magical properties of aether to power devices, people come up with some incredible things. For this series, I wanted to honor that spirit of invention by eschewing aether power and exploring the magic of the human imagination."  

            NOVEL 1:  Gossamer Wing            
     The Gossamer Wing of the title is a miniature air balloon—a dirigible—that has been created expressly for Charlotte Moncrieffe, the petite and lovely young widow of Reginald Moncrieffe, a Dominion spy. Five years ago, while on their honeymoon, Charlotte's husband was murdered by Jacques Martin, a rogue French agent who wears a metal, automatonic arm and ear. After Reginald's death, Charlotte withdrew from society and became a spy herself, going through the training and assembling all sorts of gear-driven clockwork devices to enhance her senses, including clockwork ear inserts. The creator of many pieces of Charlotte's beautifully crafted gear is Mr. Dexter Hardison—actually Lord Hardison, the Makesmith Baron. 

     The story begins with a Prologue that describes a fateful night in Paris seven years earlier when Reginald stole the a leather pouch containing top-secret plans for a doomsday weapon from the rogue spy who murdered him two years later. That pouch and its stolen contents are at the center of the plot of this book.

     Charlotte is determined to take the Gossamer Wing to Paris so that she can recover the pouch (which Reginald hid before he fled from Paris) and spy on the French, who are still considered Britain's enemies. Her superiors (and her father—also a spy) agree to let her do this, but only under the condition that she marries Dexter and camouflages the trip to Paris as their honeymoon. No one expects Charlotte to agree to this outlandish scheme, but she does because she is determined to complete her dead husband's mission and recover the plansnot to mention her desire to take the Gossamer Wing on a thrilling flight above Paris. The rest of the plot does the usual branching into two parts: the romance and the action.

     Even though Charlotte and Dexter have corresponded by letters over the past few years, they have never met. But when they do, they find that they like each other and are physically attracted as well. At first, Charlotte feels guilty about her attraction to Dexter and feels that she is being disloyal to Reginald, but by the time they are a few days into their transatlantic ocean voyage, they allow their lust to overcome them, with Charlotte always stipulating that their sexual escapades must end—along with the sham marriage—when their mission is completed and they are back home in New York. (Of course, the reader doesn't believe this for even a moment.)

     The action part of the story has two separate plot lines, one for each of the lovers. Charlotte pilots both the Gossamer Wing and a submarine called the Gilded Lily as she attempts to spy on Dubois, a corrupt businessman thought to have been involved in the doomsday plot. Unfortunately, Jacques Martin still works for Dubois, and he hasn't forgotten about the lost plans, so when Charlotte and her new husband turn up in Paris, he spies on them. Meanwhile, Dexter becomes involved with the creation of a seismograph that will give advance warnings of undersea earthquakes. This new invention is critical because the British have built a secret undersea spy center in the Atlantic Ocean off the French coast.

     Although some of the political machinations within the action plot are a bit muddy, this book is definitely an enjoyable read. The steampunk gadgetry enhances, but does not overwhelm, the story. In fact, Charlotte's very different reactions to piloting the dirigible and the submarine are part of what makes her such a complex character. Dryden does an excellent job in her character development and definition, particularly with Charlotte, Dexter, and Jacques Martin. We even get some fascinating back-story details about poor dead Reginald—all masterfully connected to Charlotte's anguished attempts to get her life headed in the right direction. Even if you think you don't like steampunk, I recommend that you give this book a try. It's a fast read with compelling action, simmering sexual tension, whimsical humor, and an inventive mythology. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Gossamer Wing on the book's page. Just click on the book cover at the top of that page.    

             NOVEL 2:  Scarlet Devices             
      The lovers in this novel have close connections to Dexter Hardson, the hero of book 1 (Gossamer Wing). Eliza Hardison is Dexter's cousin, and Matthew Pence is his chief assistant. They have know each other since Eliza was a child, but Matthew has not seen her since she went off to college so in his memory, she is still that bothersome little girl who was almost like a little sister to him. As the story opens, the two meet at Dexter's birthday party, and Matthew can't believe his eyes. Eliza has grown into a lovely young woman, and a feisty, independent one at that. When Dexter talks Eliza into being his pilot in the upcoming American Dominion Sky and Steam Rally, she learns that Matthew, too, is a contestant. The 15 pilots will drive their steam-powered velocimobiles from New York to Colorado Springs, where they will then take to the air, piloting their airships across the Sierra Nevada and then on to San Francisco.

     The story follows Eliza and Matthew as they make their way west, falling in love along the way. The plot conflict is caused by a villain who wants to keep the pilots from crossing the Sierra Nevada. For his own nefarious reasons, he has started rumors that the Sierra Nevada are impassible because they are a source of poisonous gases that will kill anyone who tries to cross them, either by land or by air. Unfortunately, many people have disappeared from eastern and Midwestern parts of the country, and no one ever sees them again. Now, when someone disappears, people say that he "went west," meaning that he is probably dead.

     As the story begins, Eliza views Matthew as someone she has to impress, rather than as someone with whom she might fall in love. She remembers back to their days in Dexter's workshop when he wouldn't allow her to use various tools and do exciting experiments because she saw her as a fragile female. Eliza is sick of being kept away from the exciting parts of life because she is a woman, and she fears that Matthew's continuing need to protect her is a sign that he would never allow her any independence. Matthew, on the other hand, admires Eliza's tenacity and intelligence, but he can't help feeling protective because she is so young and physically petite and delicate in appearance. As their road trip continues, the two get to know each other better, and they soon fall for one anotherfirst in lust, and then in love.

     Although the author has stated that her series is not set in Victorian times, the plot language certainly seems to say otherwise. For example, Matthew refuses to "ruin" Eliza by consummating their love, and that termruinis straight out of a romance novel set in the 19th century.   

     This is a light-weight paranormal romance that includes quite a bit of steampunk. The action plot doesn't really do much to interrupt the ongoing love affair until the very end of the book, when both the hero and the heroine are put briefly in danger, but soon escape to their HEA. The villain is easytoo easyto spot early on, as is his involvement with the Temperance Ladies who pester Eliza in every town along the race route, calling her a slut and a whore. This novel isn't as strong as the first one, mostly because of the obviousness of the plot and the simplistic and heavy-handed pro-feminist theme. Eliza and Matthew make a nice-enough couple, but the idea that a single young female in this strictly regulated society would be allowed to go off alone with a bunch of strange men into the wild frontier lands is improbable. Granted, there are two other women pilots, but they are both much older than Eliza. Back in book 1, the only way that Charlotte was allowed to go off on her adventure was to agree to a temporary marriage so that she would have a suitable escort who would protect her. It seems unlikely that Eliza would be spared similar social constrictions.  

     One last note: The cover art shows a train puffing black smoke in the background, but there are absolutely no trains in the story, just velocimobiles and airships. The cover is more accurate in portraying the lead characters, particularly by showing the heroine's Asian heritage. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Scarlet Devices on the book's page. Just click on the book cover at the top of that page.  

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