Alert: The Spoiler Express, bound for Spoilertown, is now boarding! Seriously, I’m about to give away a pretty significant plot twist. Read on at your own risk.
In Kristen Callihan’s spooky steampunk Darkest London series, no two characters have darker histories than Jack Talent and Mary Chase. Jack may strut around town as a powerful shape-shifter and member in good standing of the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals (SOS), an organization dedicating to keeping Queen Victoria’s loyal subjects safe from the various demons and their ilk that swirl about the Sceptered Isle. But his swagger conceals a long history of physical and emotional mistreatment, most recently at the hands of a bevy of malignant demons who abused him in every possible manner until (to his complete relief and humiliation) Mary came to his rescue.
Mary, for her part, may look like a prim Victorian miss, but she’s actually a GIM – a Ghost in the Machine, a reanimated body powered by a mechanical heart, and also in the employ of the SOS. Some years back, Mary was assaulted by a group of rowdies in an alley. Afterwards, confused and distraught, she ran into the street, where she was immediately run down by a gin wagon. At the moment of her death, she was offered second life as a GIM. She eventually became the intimate friend of an enigmatic wastrel named Lucien and allowed everyone, including her SOS colleagues, to believe that she was Lucien’s doxy.
She never was, of course, but as Shadowdance, the steamy, compulsively readable Book 4 of the Darkest London series, begins, Jack doesn’t realize this, and having his own odd, but strict, moral code, he openly despises her. She, in turn, disdains him utterly.
I don’t even need to tell you, do I, that they’re secretly pining for one another?
Callihan spends over 200 pages ratcheting up the sexual tension between the two to an almost unbearable level. But then finally, a breakthrough: They kiss! And there is great rejoicing! However…
“I can’t.” Just saying it cut into his throat. So he said it again. “I cannot do this to you…The night you died. I was there.”
“What? No.” No, he wasn’t one of the men who had hurt her. She remembered each leering face. They’d been older. Good God, had he shifted into another identity? He couldn’t possibly have. She’d killed them all. She struggled to breathe.
“I killed you, Mary.” His voice was deadwood. “I was driving the gin wagon…Me, Will, and another named Nicky. We’d stolen the wagon from a London gang…I was driving the wagon, urging the horses faster. You ran out of nowhere.”
… “How old were you?” She was surprised at the calm in her voice. Inside she was numb.
Perhaps so was he. His eyes were dry, clear, and direct when he looked up. “Fourteen.”
So. He killed her. That’s…pretty bad, right? But wait – it gets worse.
“You recognized me? It was but an instant. When, Jack? When did you realize I was the one you’d run over?”
…He stopped and started again, resigned. “Lucien’s barge.”
… “All this time…From the moment you recognized me –“ for she could remember that moment too, the way he’d suddenly grown cold and distant – “I thought it was because of how Lucien and I were together.” Her teeth clicked. “You made me think that,” she ground out. “Made me feel like a whore…when it was never that. No. All this time, all these years of strife. It was out of guilt! For killing me.”
Her hand met his face with a ringing slap. He didn’t flinch. But she did. He broke her heart.
Enough, already! But Callihan then proceeds to Pile. It. On.
“I would have forgiven you, Jack. Isn’t that ironic? I would have done it in an instant. You were a boy. A stupid, ignorant boy…What I cannot forgive is that you held your own guilt over me. For years. You made me feel as though I were in the wrong. Deliberately.”
“Yes.” Weaker now. A ghost of a whisper. Pitiless. Hollow.
“Good God, I was so very wrong about you,” she said. “I thought that you were redeemable, that there was hope for you.”
“No, there was never any hope for me,” he said. “Now you understand. There is only ugliness inside of me.”
So to sum things up, at this point in the proceedings Jack and Mary have one key thing in common: They both loathe Jack. But lest you feel the same devastation upon reading this passage that I did, allow me to spoil the book just a bit further and promise you that they do, in fact, work things out…and that the scene in which they finally open their hearts to one another and give in to their passion is, no lie, the hottest thing I’ve ever read. So there’s that.
This scene, while difficult to read, is not the first time Jack and Mary will shock you and/or move you to tears; nor is it the last. (I haven’t even mentioned the dense but compelling plot.) But it’s the book’s very intensity that renders it a cut above its predecessors in the Darkest London series. Powerfully emotional and emotionally powerful, Shadowdance is Kristen Callihan’s best yet.
Kate Nagy blogs at http://kateholdscourt.wordpress.com/.