This review post will be a little different today, on account of it being a review not just of a single book, but a series in general so far. The reason being that I picked it up and practically swallowed it whole over my holiday break from reviewing back before/during Christmas. And what a present to myself it turned out to be. Read on below the cut for more – but be warned, there are at least general series spoilers within.
Got it? Right then…
My name is Cherry St. Croix. Society would claim that I am a well-heeled miss with an unfortunate familial reputation. They’ve no idea of the truth of it. In my secret world, I hunt down vagrants, thieves . . . and now, a murderer. For a monster stalks London’s streets, leaving a trail of mystery and murder below the fog.
Eager for coin to fuel my infatuations, I must decide where my attentions will turn: to my daylight world, where my scientific mind sets me apart from respectable Society, or to the compelling domain of London below. Each has a man who has claimed my time as his – for good or for ill. Though as the corpses pile, and the treacherous waters of Society gossip churn, I am learning that each also has its dangers. One choice will see me cast from polite company . . . the other might just see me dead.
— “Tarnished” (The St Croix Chronicles, Book One)
I was surprised – and a bit bemused – to find myself in error about what to expect before I started reading these books. Billed as paranormal romance, I had expected something heavier on the romance aspect than anything. While that’s certainly present, what I discovered I had was more urban fantasy than anything. And more than simply that, it was an alternative-Victorian, steampunk London-set urban fantasy.
Cue the devouring, and how tasty it was.
One of the standout elements for me, right away, was London itself. Reimagined as a city literally split into two levels, one clean and affluent and reserved for the well-to-do in high society, and the other… Not.
London below, in the soot-fog and the dark, is a deliciously dangerous place, full of criminals, Collectors (read: bounty hunters) and, in the midst of it all, a carnival.
Imagine my heart’s delight at all of this. Seriously; if any of these things appeal to you at all, then you want to read this. Not only for the setting, but for our protagonist and the characters she encounters on her ‘misadventures’. Cherry St Croix was born to good money, but she grew up bearing the stigma – and the personal fallout – of her parents’ less than polished reputations. Now, she’s making her name in London below as a Collector by night, and navigating London above by day as a young heiress with absolutely no desire to marry…
As if all of that wasn’t interesting enough, Cherry has another problem; she’s an opium addict. Though like many addicts, she probably wouldn’t call herself that… A traumatic childhood has left Cherry with recurring night terrors, and being ‘managed’ as a willful child through the use of opium left her with a craving for it that quickly starts spiralling out of control as her experience as a Collector takes her to far darker places than she’s ever been…
Though Society demands that I make a good marriage, I, Cherry St. Croix, have neither the time nor the interest. I am on the trail of a murder with no victim, a mystery with no motive, and the key to an alchemical formula that could be my family’s legacy.
Yet the world is not so kind as to let me pursue simple murder and uncomplicated bounties. Above the foggy drift, an earl insists on my attention, while my friends watch my increasingly desperate attempts to remain my own woman. From the silken demands of the Midnight Menagerie—to whose dangerously seductive ringmaster I owe a debt—to the rigorous pressures of the peerage, all are conspiring to place before me a choice that will forever change my life.
Gilded, the second book in the series, settles its focus for the most part upon Cherry’s life in London above, as the demands upon her regarding marriage and the need to keep herself and her household afloat mean that she’s got some important choices to make – if her stubborn nature will let her make them…
My tea-and-tissues count throughout this book was pretty high, I must say – particularly by the end, but of course I won’t spoil that here. Suffice to say that, as we’re taken further into the “gilded” world that is London above, we see that there’s perhaps a lot of possibility for Cherry to live well. That doesn’t make it any less of a frustrating place for someone like her, but nonetheless, if she could learn to find her feet, so to speak, and let go of a lot of her past, well… Could she be happy? Possibly.
But this is Cherry, and apparently letting go is not something she does well.
Cherry’s a strong character, and one I’ve come to love, but by no means is she perfect. Intriguingly flawed, sometimes frustratingly so, is the order of the day where she’s concerned – though this certainly doesn’t rule out personal growth, and that’s entirely to Karina Cooper’s credit as a writer. All of her wonderfully-built world would fall flat without a central character strong enough to hold it up, and Cherry does just that, even while she herself has what seems to be very little actual idea of what’s really going on in the shadows around her most of the time.
The decision she reaches by the climax of this book was one I found myself supporting by then, having gone on this leg of her journey with her – which makes the book’s actual ending all the more affecting. See above regarding tissues…
But therein lie spoilers. Moving swiftly on!
My rival, a collector of bounties like myself, has murdered one of my own. In consequence, I have been removed from my house, my staff, and all who would support me. I have nowhere else to turn, so I beg asylum within the Midnight Menagerie, London’s decadent pleasure garden.
Micajah Hawke’s dominance there will not tolerate my presence for long. I am fixated on revenge, but I walk a razor’s edge under his scrutiny His wicked power is not easily ignored, and I must not allow myself to submit—no matter how sweet the sacrifice.
Challenging my rival to a race is the only way to end this, no small task when the quarry is the murderous Jack the Ripper. As my enemies close in, I fear the consequences of this hunt. I am trapped between two killers, and what doesn’t kill me may leave its scars forever.
First of all, a note for those who might be concerned about it – this book is not in any way Yet Another Jack The Ripper Story. His ‘legend’ features here, but there’s no spotlight taken away from Cherry’s story – and here, her story becomes something darker than perhaps it’s ever been. It’s a clever move on Karina Cooper’s part to introduce her take on Jack without making this book too much about him, and how she eventually resolves this subplot got an approving nod from me, the more I thought about it.
But, back to Cherry. After taking a tour through London above, this book brings us back down in London below, back to Micajah Hawke’s Midnight Menagerie, with quite a bump. We get to see more of the mysterious ringmaster than ever before – in a few senses (*eyebrow waggle*) – and the places that her ties to him, not to mention that pesky stubbornness of hers, take Cherry this time around are dark indeed. Cut loose from the ‘above’ half of her world, all that Cherry has left is Below, and more than just the Collector life, this means we see even more of the ugly side of her opium addiction. It’s been growing steadily worse in the time since That Ending in Gilded, and no quarter is spared where Cherry’s desperation to achieve the goals she sets her sights on is concerned – even if she’s painfully misguided about it at this point.
In short, we learn just how little Cherry really understands about what she’s gotten herself into, and what lies ahead is a wonderfully dangerous mess of alchemy, magic, shady secrets and, where Micajah Hawke is concerned, more mystery than I could shake a stick at.
Ah, Hawke. I don’t want to say too much about him because it’s pretty spoileriffic, but oh, what a tasty intrigue-filled slice of cake he is.
But apparently – again – I’ll have to wait to get my answers there. DAMN IT, COOPER.
…Okay, there is more to be said on this series – specifically, in a few days, after Book Four (Tempered) is officially released and I can share my thoughts on it in a full review. Yeah, that’s right. Thanks to the sheer awesomeness and generosity of Ms Cooper, I have received and thoroughly devoured an advance copy. But that’s for another post; I think I’ve rambled on quite enough.
So, to sum up here, this series is quite simply one that fans of urban fantasy, steampunk and/or romance don’t want to miss. Fans of Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series really don’t want to miss it. *Wink*
Well, that’s it! For now, anyway. Check back here tomorrow, when I’ll be interviewing the author herself! It’s good stuff. Don’t miss it!