Avon / June 26, 2012 / $7.99 print, $4.99 digital
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.
Steampunk and Urban Fantasy collide in Karina Cooper’s Tarnished, an utterly compelling hybrid of oh-so-many archetypes it will make your head spin. From the first page, you will be entranced by our flawed heroine, rejoicing in the unlikely but mellifluous name of Cherry St. Croix, and swept away on a tide of murder, mayhem, drugs and desire, as Cherry navigates lives in two very different—assuredly very Alternate—Victorian Londons.
Of respectable, if not noble, birth, Cherry is a barely-tolerated scion of Polite Society, in which her passion for science and the legacy of her late father, the notorious but brilliant Mad St. Croix, are considered not entirely the thing. Having experienced an interesting, certainly troubled, childhood, she now lives in bohemian Chelsea, above the drift, at the home of her absent guardian and in the care of assorted devoted servants.
“Above the drift,” because in this London, beset as it is by the famous “pea soup” fog that was the legacy of the Industrial Revolution and numerous coal fires, an innovative solution was reached: sections of the city were raised on hydraulic stilts, connected by arched bridges and serviced by airships and “aether”-powered floating gondolas, leaving the wealthy existing, quite literally, in rarefied heights, while the less fortunate of the metropolis’ denizens cough and squint it out amidst the all-pervasive pollution below.
Below the drift, therefore, is a place of desperation and depravity, cold reality for those who cannot afford to escape it, or for those who would choose to rule it. And it is below the drift where Cherry allows her reckless, headstrong nature full sway, acting incognito as a “collector”—read: bounty hunter—and coming into frequent contact with the fascinating master of the decadent Midnight Menagerie, Micajah Hawke. (Speaking of unlikely but mellifluous names; pronounced Mi-CAGE-er, it seems.)
If the Menagerie was London’s Garden of Eden, then Micajah Hawke was its serpent. A wickedly dark man whose power lay in his persona. Hawke was ringmaster and director; foreman and tempter…
The man was sensual as sin. And just as dangerous.
Also sensual and dangerous below the drift? The drugs upon which Cherry is utterly dependent, having been addicted as a child. And to which she must turn for even a moment’s sleep not plagued by nightmare.
The patrons of an opium den are not usually the raucous sort. Conversation flows when a man or woman is just settling in, and as the opium is heating in the long, slender pipes. Then, as the resulting smoke is inhaled and begins to creep warmly, deliciously, to the mind, conversation ebbs. The better to follow the spidery trails of liquid gold; the warmth of it as it fills every nerve and sensation and paints the mind in shades of glorious awareness.
Once fully absorbed, conversation may start again, but it’s not the rough, unrefined sound it was. It becomes something melodic and fascinating, and many things are said if only just to hear the sound of it.
Small lamps glittered in the hazy air, the devices by which opium pipes could be heated. I inhaled deeply, holding the smoky remnants of used opium in my lungs for a moment.
I knew this smell.
Cherry is not the world’s most sensible heroine, and neither is she its most sympathetic. But she is complicated and captivating, loyal and logical, independent and strangely irresistible. Her first-person perspective is as convincing as it is convoluted, as we travel with her in London above and below, trying to make sense of a string of brutal killings, and the animosity of one of Society’s leading matrons—whose handsome son is, naturally enough, quite taken with our Cherry—and her own fractured memories. She is chased by demons and haunted by ghosts, is seemingly convinced of her own invincibility (much evidence to the contrary), and is as fierce in her convictions as she is in her addictions. An Urban Fantasy protagonist in a Steampunk world—in which she insists there is no magic and where she is by turns outcast, pet, protector, victim and champion.
At no point in this novel does this become not fun. The happy melding of two such disparate, yet complimentary, fields is executed flawlessly—actually, add in historical romance and chicklit, and you have more of a four-way mashup—and the mystery that is put forward does not go anywhere you’d expect, which is both an impressive and uncomfortable turn of events (and whatever theories you develop about what becomes the larger, overarching conundrum will have to wait till the sequel to be answered...if then.)
In many ways this book puts one in mind of nothing so much as early Anita Blake—a very good thing, by the by; Micajah is a veritable, non-vampirey Jean-Claude, all stirred together with Gail Carriger, Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan-Doyle, Stacia Kane and more than a few ingredients all Cooper’s own.
The anachronism, and there is some, is easily excusable due to the Alternate History nature of Steampunk; really, the only complaint one might reasonably make is that Cherry’s oft-heard catch cry, “Allez hop!”, might just be a little too oft-heard.
In all, a remarkable achievement of a book, gritty and sexy as well as confounding and very, very clever—long may Cherry St. Croix continue to roam both above and below the drift. “Allez hop!” and all.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.