For me, steampunk books can be a very hit or miss affair, with some books trying too hard to be quirky with its inventions or trying to be “modern” in a Victorian setting.
Thankfully, Tarnished isn’t one of these books and to be honest should be tagged more as a thriller set in Victorian England, with hints of steampunk technology. This isn’t a bad thing and is actually a very fun read, as you aren’t bogged down with the inventions.
The main plot is centered around a young woman named Cherry St Croix and the double life she leads. By day she is the eccentric daughter of a deceased madman, but by night she is what is known as a “Collector” or what appears to be a bounty hunter. She also has an addiction to opium, mainly due to a dependency that has grown out of a troubled childhood.
It’s this addiction that drives her to take a dangerous job where someone is murdering Sweets, or prostitutes, and stealing their organs in Lower London. At first it seemed that this could have been a thinly veiled attempt at bringing Jack The Ripper into this world, but as the plot progressed we end up finding out that there is in fact two serial killers on the loose.
For a first novel, it was brilliantly paced with just the right amount of world building, backstory and setting up of future plotlines for the series. The setting is amazing and gives a good idea of what this world could be like.
London has split into two, with the poorer inhabitants living on the ground among the smog and dirt of industry. The well to do citizens have used technology to raise large chunks of the city onto large metal pillars above the smog. To move between the two parts of the city, they use various sizes of airships.
I could clearly see this divided city in my mind, yet it was still familiar. I could almost imagine this as London, with familiar landscapes described. It isn’t too far from the truth, with many of the rich leaving London due to the smog and dirt that has come along with the new industries.
As for the main plotline, Cooper manages to tie it up by the end of the novel, but still leaves one major sub plot hanging in the air. Who is this other collector, who was helping the main antagonist in this book to kill the Sweets and take their organs? He isn’t all that he seems, at least to me. What shakes our heroine is the fact that he knows about her double life. He knows where she lives and how she escapes her house to take the mantle of collector below. It’s unnerving, and leaves the reader wanting to find out more.
An important sub plot is Cherry’s romantic love life. Thankfully the author hasn’t “sexed” it up. (Yeah, I hear you all gasping in surprise at this for you know how much I love a good rustle between the literary bedsheets.) Yet, the complex love square is compelling stuff.
In Cherry’s daily life, she is being courted by two men; one who she is clearly attracted to and the other who she sees as a friend, but we can see that he has feelings for her.
His Lordship Cornelius Kerrington Compton is society’s most eligible bachelor and it comes as a complete surprise that he should be attracted to Cherry. His mother despises Cherry and you can’t help wondering if his intentions are true or if he is trying to annoy his mother. What is even more intriguing is the fact that Compton also seems to be leading a double life. Cherry discovers this when she spots him in one of the opium dens in the slums.
Compton is a mysterious guy and by the end of the book I’m not too sure that he is what he seems. I have even put him on my list of suspects who might be the other collector. Either that or he knows who this person is and that is why he is down in the slums.
The other guy who I think likes Cherry in a romantic way is her friend Lord Teddy Helmsley. The only way I can describe him is that he is very similar to Laurie from Little Women. He has an infatuation with Cherry, but she is oblivious to it.
In the long run, I don’t see either being the match to Cherry. That position, I think, belongs to Micajah Hawke, owner of one of London’s most notorious pleasure dens. He is seductive and dangerous, my type of alpha male. Yet, underneath that hard exterior is a deeply hidden moral code. I’m not going to spoil it, but the scene in question left me with a new found respect for the enigmatic Mr. Hawke.
As for Cherry, I really liked her from the get go. She is a mixture of the feisty female heroine, mixed with the respectable Victorian miss I love to read in my Regency romance books. She would fit so well into any of the novels written at the time and that is attributed to the authors success in capturing Cherry so well on paper.
Her backstory is interesting and in a way has shaped who she has become. We find out very early on that she was orphaned at young age and somehow ended up as pickpocket, thief and acrobat for a circus owner. It is here that her addiction to opium began and if it hadn’t been through a twist of fate, she most likely would have been on the other side of the pleasure dens.
For all her bravado, Cherry is very vulnerable. She knows that she has to keep her respectability, if not for herself then for her staff. She sees them as her family and would do anything to protect them, which is proven throughout the book.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was such a refreshing read and a great start to a new series. There is so much to this book that it is hard to cram it all into this review. If like me, you are fed up with seeing very modern women in books that are supposedly set in Victorian or any other era, then pick this up! Its fantastic and I could almost see the literary character Sherlock Holmes turning up in this book.
Cooper has created a world that is both plausible and yet holds a bit of the fantastical. It’s both brutal and beautiful. By the end of the book you are invested in all the characters.
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