Wicked As They Come
Pocket/March 27, 2012/$7.99
When Tish Everett forces open the ruby locket she finds at an estate sale, she has no idea that a deliciously rakish Bludman has cast a spell just for her. She wakes up in a surreal world, where Criminy Stain, the dashing proprietor of a magical traveling circus, curiously awaits. At Criminy’s electric touch, Tish glimpses a tantalizing future, but she also foresees her ultimate doom. Before she can decide whether to risk her fate with the charming daredevil, the locket disappears, and with it, her only chance to return home. Tish and Criminy battle roaring sea monsters and thundering bludmares, vengeful ghosts and crooked Coppers in a treacherous race to recover the necklace from the evil Blud-hating Magistrate. But if they succeed, will Tish forsake her fanged suitor and return to her normal life, or will she take a chance on an unpredictable but dangerous destiny with the Bludman she’s coming to love?
In a curious world, with a mix of Steampunk and Bludmen (a little like vampires, but with a different name), Delilah S. Dawson’s Wicked As They Come could easily have touched upon every cliché possible. Instead, the story was delivered in a unique way, combing humour with philosophical meanderings and a hard look at the realities of love.
Tish explains her troubled history early in the book, and it is a very relatable one for many women: She was engaged to a man who still believed a woman’s place was in the home and her only purpose was to please him, which it seemed even when trying her best, she failed miserably. He tried to control her, put her down frequently, and even beat her. She says:
And then one day, you realize that you’re basically plaything and property to a man who’s charmed you out of your pants and into the perfect ring he had picked out before he even met you. That he’s not making plans with you, he’s making you fit into his plans, no matter what the cost. You realize that you’ve become a paper doll with paper thoughts, that it was all too easy to give up control.
So what was she to do when the locket she found placed her in a situation of instant attraction with the strange Criminy Stain? Thanks to her previous experience, she fights it.
It is Tish’s reluctance to succumb that gives this story more depth. Not only does Tish (now being called Letitia, her full name) have to worry about survival in the land of Sang, but she has to hold onto her heart, for fear of that all-consuming feeling that tends to arise when you fall in love. It is an intriguing contrast, the love people search for on Earth can be a single-minded goal for many. Yet, in Sang, that love is handed to Tish readily, but there are bigger issues at stake that detract from the emotional aspects, like survival or a way back home.
The setting of the book is replete with moors, fog, and very odd people. The imagery is heightened by the bleak descriptions of the Pinky (human) cities. The Pinkies closed themselves in gated, walled towns to hold back their probable demise from the Bludmen and animals. Regardless of the superiority of the Coppers (police, but the mostly brutal kind) and the Pinkies, the life they have to endure seems much less free that what the Bludmen have outside the gates. For Tish, it is an apt comparison to her feelings for Criminy.
The life he was offering me, the one I resisted so strongly, was based on freedom. We both wanted the same thing, yet he didn’t understand that love was itself a cage, and I wasn’t ready to hear that gilded door snap shut.
It is a pretty jaded way of looking at things, but rightfully so, from her point of view.
The underlying issue for Tish is whether her strong pull towards Criminy is because of the spell on the necklace. Her ability to keep him at arms-length for as long as she does, allows her to develop her own ideas on the matter, even if they maybe be magically predisposed. And, as much as Criminy is self-proclaimed as, “A rogue. Wicked…” he is easily swayed by Tish. Criminy can come across as gruff and, at times, demanding, he never really seems to force Tish into anything, unless it’s a matter of safety (for her.) This is a wonderful change for her from her previous relationship.
While the idea of love at first sight, a woman’s right to choose her own destiny, and the choice of the real world or the fantastical one are all very deep, the novel has witty observations and contradictions that balance the deeper topics throughout. Tish is expected to accept the existence of “bludrats” and “bludbunnies,” but she gets teased about her assuming the birds are blood drinkers as a ridiculous thought. One of the bigger differences is the historic setting. Dressing in a corset, stockings, and bloomers, Tish observes, “If they could make robots, what was so hard about making underwear?” This is an enlightening look at the whole Steampunk conundrum.
The novel flips from the familiar to the fantastical effortlessly. The aforementioned bludbunnies still go at it like rabbits, as they do on Earth, yet they are vicious, fanged creatures that need to be avoided. The names used in Sang are close to the Earth versions, with the variation of a letter or two: Brussels is Bruzzles, France is Franchia. Religion, though not extensively discussed, also seems to be part of the Sang world, while things like disease aren’t. This seemed to be a more comparative point at first, and of no real consequence to Tish’s story, but turns out to be a major plot issue.
There are some stereotypical aspects to the story, also. Criminy is master of a set of caravans, much like a travelling circus here. With that come bearded ladies and strong men. Even Tish discovers her own hidden talent quickly after joining with Criminy’s crew. It is somewhat ironic, for one fighting the seemingly inevitable, to have the power to see her own future. It brings about the question can one change their own fate. She asks Criminy, “Is it inevitable?” who answers with, “Only if you want it to be.”
This seems optimistic coming from a man that knows all too well the perils of life in Sang. But, Criminy also says of fortune-tellers in general,
You’d think a true glancer would know when and where to show up for a job interview, but somehow the old bluffers never do.
Wicked As They Come contains a little bit of everything to please a paranormal reader, including crazy machines, killer rats, and a hint at a love triangle. It could have followed down the rabbit hole (an apt reference to Tish’s experience) of previous vampire or Steampunk tales, but it takes the high road, with humor and insights into life. And the necklace that started it all comes to represent more than just how Tish would meet Criminy, and if their love would bloom. It also becomes the catalyst that will determine her future in either reality. Will it end in true love that is consentual and desired by Tish? Only Tish knows for sure.
Jackie Lester imagines a day when she can make a living as a writer. Until then, she reviews eclectic books at My Ever Expanding Library and lives in small-town Ontario with her daughter.