Publish date: December 4, 2012
How I got this Book: eARC from NetGalley
The Wardens of the Realm are a group with extraordinary abilities, dedicated to protecting England from any threat. But in this steam-powered world, there’s a fine line between enemy and ally…
Reeling from her brother’s death, beautiful American spy Claire Brooks has vowed revenge on the member of The Company who she believes to be responsible: Stanton Howard. But when she chases the man to London, Claire is captured by the Wardens of the Realm and placed in the custody of the Earl of Wolfred, the dashing Alastair Payne.
Seeing the prospect of retribution slipping away, Claire convinces Alastair that she has defected and will help him take down The Company. As they travel via steam liner, Claire and Alastair must pretend to be engaged. Claire can’t deny the growing attraction she feels for her pretend husband, but when Howard is finally within her reach, she will have to decide whether her true loyalties lie with The Company or with her heart…
*Blurb from Goodreads
This is the second steampunk novel I’ve read and I’m not sure this genre is for me. So, please keep that in mind while reading this review. This also is the first novel I’ve read by Kate Cross even though this story is the second in her Clockwork Agents series. I think Cross does a thorough job of clueing in new readers to the series (more on that later) and it worked as a standalone read for me.
There were some interesting aspects to the world-building with competing spy agencies and medical advances enabling the augmentation of the human body. This story seemed much more about Claire and her mission of revenge than it focused on any specific political intrigues between The Company and the Wardens. Perhaps that’s what made it an okay stand-alone read. Most of the contraptions described were simply steampunk versions of technology we already have today and this ultimately is why I think I’m struggling with the genre as a whole. None of the contraptions were that innovative. There were some minor inconsistencies with the technology as well (like how could hotel servants come and go through a door that Alastair had alarmed to prevent Claire from escaping?). However, compared to the previous steampunk book I read by another author, Cross does a much better job at integrating the steampunk elements into the narrative with her descriptions of the machines, how they worked and the sounds they made. I could hear the click-clack noises and purring whirs of the gears and mechanisms coming to life.
The opening scenes took off at a great pace. The author dropped us right in the middle of the action and intrigue as Claire was in pursuit of the man who had killed her brother. Good stuff. If that pace had continued, I think this story would have worked much better for me. I felt things came to a grinding halt when Alastair came on scene. At first glance, it was a scene between Alastair and his best friend, Luke (who was the hero from the first book). What began as banter between two friends became a means of delivering backstory from the first book. This format continued even as Arden, Luke’s wife and also a main character from book one, later entered into the conversation. It didn’t feel natural and skirted into the territory of infodump. However, having not read the first book, it did help me to get a feel for all the players. Once I got past that section, I hoped the story would pick up the pace previously set in the opening scenes. But the story didn’t really get going until somewhere around the middle of chapter five (about 25% into the story). And even then, it never really got back up to the same speed.
When Claire was back in Warden custody toward the end of the book, the story slowed to a stop again. The interrogation and subsequent trial basically presented a rehash of everything we had just read and didn’t add any tension whatsoever. Right before the trial started Alastair went off and had some kind of adventure, the outcome of which became instrumental to the trial, but it happened behind the scenes. I thought that following Alastair’s journey at that time would have provided new content to add drama and tension.
Another issue related to pacing had to do with dialogue. Character A would say something followed by a couple paragraphs (sometimes pages) of exposition in the form of internal dialogue before we would get Character B’s response. Sometimes I’d forget what Character B was responding to so I’d have to go back and find the previous dialogue tag. Other times, I thought the conversation had ended and Character B had moved on only to realize that Character B had been there the whole time because we’d get to the end of a lengthy bit of exposition to find a dialogue tag from Character B in response to something Character A had said. It felt odd and contributed to a sense of slowing the action down.
I did enjoy both Claire and Alastair as characters and the adventure they went on to find Stanton Howard. Here, I think, is where the sense of slowing the story down worked in favor of the romance. The romance built over just a few days so in a faster moving story it would have felt like zero to sixty. But instead, I lost track of that sense of time moving too fast and actually found myself liking how their relationship developed. I like when the hero and heroine develop a mutual respect for one another as individuals before the romance fully blossoms (even if the attraction is there from the beginning). However, much of the relationship happened via internal dialoguing. Having a character musing about another character’s motivations or about their own feelings isn’t the same thing as learning about the other character or having actual character interaction. A little musing is understandable as we all wonder about other people, but too much keeps the characters at a distance from each other and the reader.
I think Cross has created a very interesting world. However, the issues I had with pacing and the heavy focus on internal dialogue versus actual character interaction kept me from connecting to the story. By the end, I found myself speed-reading just to get through it. Having said that, I do think that Cross has the writing chops and would be curious to check out some of her work in a different genre. It could be that I’m just not responding to the historical formality inherent to the steampunk setting. I’m not sure what’s next for this series, but I’m curious about Evie (a doctor for the Wardens) – I hope she gets a story.
I give Touch of Steel a C.