Forged By Desire

Forged By Desire_BecMcMaster_17901769

SECRETS TO DIE FOR

5 STARS

Garrett Reed, Acting Master of the Nighthawks, has a secret, a dangerous and lethal secret. Only weeks ago, an Echelon lord, in a chemically induced blood frenzy, shattered Garrett’s chest and literally dragged his heart halfway out before he was subdued. In order to heal such an extensive injury, the virus that makes him the blue-blooded vampire-like creature that he is had to go into overdrive.

Now, Garrett’s craving virus percentage has nearly doubled and is still rising in small increments daily. At this current rate, in just mere weeks he will be unable to control his need for blood and will become a danger to anyone around him. And because he is leader of the Nighthawks, he will not simply be incarcerated and forced to die of starvation, he will be summarily beheaded.

However, that’s not the only secret he has to keep. He has been partners in the Nighthawks with Perry Lowell for nine years. And during a recent sting operation, Garrett discovered that Perry is a woman. Now, he’s always known that Perry is female, the only one in the Nighthawks, in fact, and one of the few female blue-bloods in existence. But she has always worn the men’s leather uniform and armor, has a man’s haircut, and fights with all the deadliness and strength of a male blue-blood. She is his best tracker and his best friend.

However, when she dons a formal flowing gown for the sting operation and he observes her ability to function socially and flirtatiously in Echelon society, Garrett sees the “woman.” And he is lost, wanting more than friendship but afraid his virus levels will cause him to kill her. So he pushes her away onto a new partner, determined to keep all his secrets and keep her safe.

Well, Perry Lowell has some secrets, too. Nine years of them, in fact. The first is that she has loved Garrett all of those nine years. Knowing, however, that he only saw her as a partner and friend, she has kept her feelings hidden. Then, after he acknowledges her desirability during the sting operation, but summarily shoves her away before she can reciprocate, Perry decides that her feelings will just have to stay a secret after all.

If unrequited love were Perry’s only secret, life would be a cinch for her. Nine years ago, she faked her death to escape the sadistic attentions of the Duke of Moncrieff, with whom she had been forced by her father to make a blood and flesh rights thrall contract. Perry had discovered that Moncrieff sponsored a psychopathic doctor in his experiments to develop mechanical body parts. When Perry protested the experiments on live and unwilling subjects, she became one of the “experiments.”

Forcibly infected with the craving virus, Perry was repeatedly sliced and diced so that the doctor could document the healing effect of the virus. But the doctor didn’t count on the increased strength caused by the virus, a defective restraint buckle or Perry’s skills with a blade, and Perry escaped, thinking that she had killed the doctor. Moncrieff was suspected of murder when she disappeared and was sentenced to exile in Scotland for 10 years.

Now, Moncrieff is back, not only pardoned by the Prince Consort but appointed to the ruling Council. And Perry, while investigating the deaths of two Echelon debutantes, falls through a trap door in a factory floor, horrified to find herself in an exact duplicate of the laboratory where Moncrieff’s doctor had tortured her so long ago.

Bec McMaster writes a compelling and pulse-pounding tale about the effects that keeping secrets have, not only on the person who has the secrets but on the people from whom those secrets are kept. She delves intimately into the motivations, both selfless and self-serving, for keeping those secrets, even in the face of emotional or physical death.

The author is masterful in her timing and in the phrasing of each secret’s reveal. The frustration and the tension she builds as you witness the effects of the lies of omission, as you wait for each secret to be divulged and acted upon, makes this a page-turner.

While the story may be set in an alternate history, or steampunk, version of 1800’s England, the bulk of the story is pointed more toward the emotional realm than the science fiction one. The scientific and medical technology in use is a parallel, though crude, version of today’s devices, from tape recorders and ear bud communicators to artificial hearts and blood dialysis. Thus, little suspension of disbelief is required, beyond a belief in the supernatural itself, to feel at home with the storyline.

This book is the 4th full-length novel in McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it is definitely not a standalone book. In fact, this story arc is highly dependent upon the reader’s memory of the events that transpired in the 3rd novel, “My Lady Quicksilver.” Without that background, you will not sufficiently understand the Nighthawks or the dynamics between Garrett and Lynch, Garrett’s former and long-time commander, that fuel a lot of this story. And without that point of reference, it may be lost on you why certain characters believe it absolutely necessary to sacrifice blood, breath and soul in order to continue another’s survival.

Cover Art From Goodreads

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Prince Of Hearts

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DENIAL, THE WORD “NO” AND MORE DENIAL

3 STARS

The year is 1896 and the place is London. But this is not the Victorian England that we have studied in our history classes. This London, actually the entire world, is based on an alternative theory of history where the advent of the Steam Age created immediate, adverse and lethal environmental effects. As a result, the world’s population needs mechanical implants or other devices in order to survive. The most basic of these is the Iron Necklace, a device welded to the throat in order to protect the lungs from the contaminated air.

With circumstance being the mother of invention, scientists began experimenting with mechanical replacements for other body parts, such as arms, legs, eyes and hands. Even mechanically welded plates for breast enhancement and facelifts became available. The only device that has not been perfected for mechanized, welded replacement is the heart. Or so the world’s population thinks.

About 400 years previous, according to our author’s take on alternate history, Leonardo Da Vinci created 13 mechanical hearts and developed the technique for replacing a biological heart with a metal one. As a result, the owners of the new hearts became immortal. Before the 13th heart could be transplanted into the body of the chosen recipient, it was stolen by Ivan the Terrible and placed in his dying son’s chest.

The back alley surgery did not go quite as planned, leaving the son in a semi-coma for over a year and with a scar that wouldn’t quite heal. When the son regained his full consciousness, and, with it, his memories, he was not particularly pleased that his father had saved his life. Since dear old Dad had been the one who had tried to kill him in the first place, after murdering the son’s pregnant wife first, the son was a bit upset. The son bided his time, got his strength back, assassinated his father and fled Russia.

That son is one of our two main protagonists, Sasha Romanov. He has spent the last 300 years training first to be a doctor and then a psychiatrist. And now as a forensic criminologist, he spends his time hunting down psychopathic monsters like his father, monsters who maim, rape and kill just for the power and thrill of it. And for these same 300 years, spaced about 100 years apart, someone has been murdering innocents, ripping out their hearts and placing items near the bodies that would implicate Sasha in the deaths. So far, the frame-ups have not worked to get Sasha charged, however.

Now, the murders have begun again, only this time the killer has upped the stakes. The victims all have the same physical characteristics as Sasha’s secretary, Aline Finch, who is our tale’s other main protagonist.

Finch is in her early thirties, wears glasses and ugly, ill fitting, high-necked muddy brown dresses. She isn’t plain but she isn’t porcelain-doll beautiful either. She is an excellent personal assistant but she has had it with Sasha’s high-handed, demanding ways. She wants to be married, have the cottage with the picket fence, have the average 2.2 children and the dog, instead of traipsing all over the country picking up after his lordship. And now, an archeologist with whom she has been keeping company for several years has proposed marriage and a honeymoon-slash-bone dig in Egypt.

Finch accepted Charlie’s proposal almost a month ago, but she cannot seem to find what she thinks is the right time to tell Sasha that she is resigning. When she does tell him, it is in anger and he is so focused on leaving to investigate the first of the new murders that he doesn’t hear her. When he returns to London after a very bad time and narrow escape in Italy, he finds Finch gone.

Finch doesn’t know who or what Sasha is. In fact, no one in the general populace knows about the 12 Elders with the immortal hearts, the 13th immortal that is Sasha, the Blood Bond companions that the Elders can create, or the metallically fanged vampires that the Bonded companions can create. Actually, the Elders don’t know about the vampires either. And even knowing that someone is using her for bait to get to him, Sasha refuses to enlighten Finch to his circumstances.

Quite frankly, this book is full of thoughts, opinions and facts that Sasha and Finch do not “enlighten” each other with or even admit to themselves. Sasha is ashamed of who he came from and is scared senseless that he is or will become the same vicious monster that was his father. He has stuffed his emotions so far down for so many years, in an attempt to control what he feels is his hereditary bent, that he cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees when it comes to his attachment to Finch. It comes as an absolute shock to his buttoned up self that he loves her and has since she first came to work for him years ago.

But Finch is absolutely a pain to endure for the majority of the novel. Margaret Foxe has created in Finch a heroine who is obnoxious rather than strong. She assumes that she knows exactly what everyone, particularly Sasha, thinks or feels and why. She bases her thoughts and actions on what society says she ought to believe and do, rather than heed her good sense, intuition and reality.

Even reminding myself that the story is set in Victorian England, even if it is an alternative version of the age, did not help my opinion of Finch. Her self-righteousness is her worst enemy, just barely edging out for that position her constant use of the word “No.” And even though Sasha uses the word “No” quite often also, it is much easier, considering the circumstances of his immortality, to understand and sympathize with his need for secrecy and even for his need to martyr himself, physically and emotionally, in order to save Finch.

I could even understand Finch initially, considering the time period. But after about the umpteenth time her high-toned denials and presumptions sabotaged both herself and Sasha, I lost all regard for the character at all. Of course, Margaret Foxe writes the defining moment when Finch sees all her mistakes and understands that she has loved Sasha all along. Foxe has Finch finally recognize her own cowardice and culpability in the physical and emotional debacle that is their lives and act on that recognition in a positive manner. Unfortunately, the eye-opening realization comes about 150 pages too late to rescue my opinion of the heroine.

Foxe has created a structured and understandable alternate reality for her steampunk genre series opener. Unfortunately, I hesitate to purchase the next book new for fear I will get a repeat of the “egocentric, whining heroine” formula. Perhaps a library copy would be a better choice.

But on a positive note, if this book could be judged by its cover, it would rate 5 stars. I rarely let a cover sway me, but this one is fantastic, one of the few lately that have stood out in design, coloration, focus and meaningfulness to a storyline.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Soulless

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MANNERS, SIR. MANNERS.

4 STARS

This is the first in the 5-book Alexia Tarabotti series. The series is set in Victorian-era London, but the books are in the alternate historical reality of the steampunk genre.

As in many steampunk stories, the main characters are paranormal. Alexia is a preternatural while Lord Maccon and Lord Akeldama are supernaturals, an alpha werewolf and a rove vampire respectively. It is through Alexia’s eyes that we see the story unfold and she is the unique one of the set.

In the world that Carriger builds, a preternatural like Alexia is a soulless human. It is an inherited and extremely rare condition but not an evil condition. It simply means that, with physical contact, Alexia can convert a vampire or a werewolf back to its human state. But the conversion lasts only as long as the physical contact is maintained. Since supernaturals are not born into their condition, the conversion is temporary. 

Alexia inherited her preternatural condition from her Italian father, who is now dead. Her mother has remarried into the lower aristocracy and considers Alexia’s above average intelligence, her outspokenness and her Italian countenance quite the social problem. Ashamed of her, yet totally unaware of her preternatural skills, the mother refuses her a coming-out party. Thus, Alexia is declared a spinster at the ripe old age of 15.

Alexia is now, at the opening of the story, 26 years old and uses her spinsterhood to her distinct personal and intellectual advantage. While her family may not know of her condition, the supernatural world definitely does and she is greatly feared among the vampires.

Carriger builds from this background a story of substance. Using snappy dialogue, knowledge of Victorian era culture and an active imagination, she leads the reader right down the proverbial path from thinking this is a comedic romance to realizing it is a tense mystery of kidnapping and murder.

But throughout the book, even during the tensest and nastiest moments, Carriger uses the oh-so-proper nature of Victorian speech to insert humor. Using double entendre, tongue-in-cheek repartee and out-right snark, the author sets the reader up to suddenly cackle with delight or laugh to the point of tears. And even the non-dialogue parts are done with a Victorian cadence.

As far as a supernatural romantic suspense goes, this is a pretty good one, but it falls short as steampunk. The clockwork and steam mechanisms that usually characterize a steampunk entry are present but not prominent. As the story progresses, the explanations and descriptions provided increasingly leave a fuzzy feeling, as if they are being included only to establish genre. Quite frankly, Bec McMasters does a far better job incorporating such devices with the characters’ roles.

There are two other things that bothered me and caused me to reduce my rating. First, the author repeatedly declares that the soulless preternatural has been used throughout the centuries to kill supernatural creatures. However, the mechanism for doing so was never actually explained. I think I figured it out, but the author should have been far clearer, since simple touch couldn’t do it.

And secondly, the character development, with the exception of Alexia, leaves much to be desired. Even though Lord Maccon, Professor Lyall and Lord Akeldama are clearly intended as major players in the series, their portrayals come off as only two-dimensional.

I do not know yet if I will continue on with the series. While the premise of the series is rather original and the dialogue is refreshing, I was not sucked in enough at the end to pay the price currently being asked for Carriger’s books. 

Cover Art from Goodreads