Rewriting the Script: a review of Engraved, by Karina Cooper

Engraved

Series: The St. Croix Chronicles #5 | Genre: Urban fantasy/steampunk | Format: Kindle | Publisher: Carina Press | Publication date: August 11th 2014 | My rating: 5/5

Cherry St. Croix returns to the fog-ridden streets of Victorian London, where the balance of power threatens all that she loves.

I will not wither without laudanum. Sober and determined, I have chosen another way— alchemy, and the pursuit of wellness it embodies. My name is Cherry St. Croix, and though freedom is finally at my fingertips, I return to the blackened streets intent on righting the wrongs I’d left behind.

All is not well in London low. Caught in a war between gangs, men are torn limb from limb, and I am called on to ascertain how. The immoral Karakash Veil is no doubt involved, and Micajah Hawke, a prisoner in his own Menagerie, cannot soften the danger this time.

Armed with the alchemical arts I have learned, my ever present guardian, and what few friends are left to me, I embark on a campaign to rescue the ringmaster I cannot abandon, save the Brick Street Bakers from annihilation, and finally face that which frightens me the most—my own heart.

Note: the review below will likely contain mild(ish) spoilers for previous books. Proceed with caution if you haven’t read them yet!

There is nothing in the world quite like finding a series you love absolutely. Better yet is finding one that immediately feels like sitting down with a familiar story, told often and well, yet which still manages to surprise and make you think things over. I’ve done just that with Karina Cooper’s Cherry St Croix series, and the more I think it over the more impressive it gets.

Sometimes the point of including a book in Rewriting the Script is to highlight the ways in which it immediately, obviously stands out from the crowd. In terms of urban fantasy, though, this is perhaps not one such series – at first glance, anyway. Female protagonist, flaws to overcome, mysteries to solve, peril to survive. Throw in the steampunk flavouring and you’ve got something that might sound an awful lot like The Usual.

Not so, and if you pick it up and read it you’ll see why. Cooper’s subversion of those tropes is kind of a quiet one, but the end result is a wonderfully fresh approach to urban fantasy – and, though that element is less dominant story-wise, to romance. For there is an underlying romantic entanglement powering Cherry’s goals, particularly in this book, but overlying it is not her need to be with her man, which might well shift focus from her to others, but her own personal development. Her struggles with opium addiction, handled so harrowingly well in the previous book (Tempered), dealing with hard truths about her family, and her unsuccessful attempts to find a place for herself in London’s high society, have seen her find rock bottom. With this book, she’s finding her way back at last, and by the end she’s finally able to start looking forward…

This is also the book where certain shrouds of mystery start to lift. One of those impressive aspects I mentioned is Cooper’s handling of the info-dump – and by that I mean that I don’t recall a single one. Like Cherry, we’re put in a position of having to persevere to get the answers we want, particularly where Micajah Hawke and the Karakash Veil are concerned. In there somewhere are our bad guys, that much is clear – but the who, the why and especially the how are the breadcrumb trails by which Cooper keeps us on the path through her wonderfully dark and creepy forest.

And it is dark indeed. There’s magic and mythology here, though that vein still mostly remains to be mined, but we’re starting to see just how dangerous the Veil really is. There is much more to Hawke than met the eye at the beginning as well, but as Cherry starts to really find her feet and understand her own motivations, that lifting of the mysterious shroud extends to the former ringmaster. He and Cherry have been at odds from the beginning, but nonetheless, here’s that romantic entanglement I mentioned, and … Well. Let’s just say that’s the other reason I’m so impressed with Karina as a writer.

I consider myself less than interested in romance as a genre, in general. I certainly don’t read urban fantasy for that element. And yet here I am, fanning myself and hanging on quite happily to find out What Happens Next, for them as well as with the Veil, or Cherry’s (mis)adventures in alchemy.

Therein lies another reason I love her as a character, in fact. Until now, Cherry has seemed to come across much of the information she gains by accident, or through sheer bull-headed stubbornness. She simply refuses to give up, and occasionally also to listen to reason. That said, this story would probably have ended long ago and been far less interesting if she had done so. Instead, what we have is a protagonist whose story is less about what others are doing to her, and more about what she’s doing to herself. The alchemy lessons, the drug abuse, the relentless throwing of herself into danger for Hawke – she really is lucky to still be alive at this point, and here is, I think, where she starts to really see that. Cherry has reached her turning point, and while she’d never have done it without that unbreakable stubborn streak, she is perhaps starting to see that she couldn’t have done it alone – and that she can’t. This is one more reason I swoon over her relationship with Hawke, and over this series in general. Can’t wait to see how it all ends.

Yes, I admit it. I found books I’m willing to swoon over.

Damn it, Cooper!

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