I love anthologies. I know I’ve said it before and yet it’s amazing how many reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon complain about them. You have to wonder if these are the same people who loooovve novellas, not realizing that the anthology they crankified about online (yes, I invented that verb) happens to contain multiple tales of the same length. Sheesh.
Feeling in a Steampunk/Gaslight mood last night, I decided to read the anthology, A Riveting Affair, largely because it contained a story by Candace Havens, whose writing I uniformly love. I would have paid $2.99 for just her story, but the bonus is that I got two other outstanding novellas for that price, plus found additional authors whose writing I know enjoy. Bargain!
“Beauty and the Clockwork Beast” by Lily Lang
Rose Verney arrives in a steampunk Manhattan on Sebastian Cavendish’s doorstep and she’s sacrificed quite a bit to get there – running away from a controlling older sister, a pestering suitor, and having her pregnant best friend hide her before she could sell her last pieces of jewelry to buy a one-way train ticket from New Haven to the city. But it will all be worth it if her late father’s star pupil can help her finish his teleportation machine.
She’s escorted through a dust-filled empty mansion to his bedchamber, shocked that the formerly handsome boy has come through the war with a disfigured face and pronounced limp. More shocking than his physical change is when he begins kissing and groping her, having mistaken her for the prostitute he ordered for the evening. When she instead explains that she is to deliver the blueprints for the teleportation device per her father’s will – and stay to help him finish it – he rejects her out of hand. Rose doesn’t realize that Sebastian has sworn not to build any more machines after watching his work take so many lives during the war.
When Rose not only refuses to leave the following morning, but begins to clean his mansion, revitalize his clockwork servants and rebuild his laboratory in his old nursery, Sebastian finds himself unable to cling to the bitterness and anger he’s nurtured since his time in a Confederate prison. His nightmares come less often when he wakes up to Rose holding his hand, he feels the thrill of inventing again with the best partner he’s ever had working next to him, and the light and comfort in his home reflects what he feels in his heart. But as these two people fall quietly in love with one another, Sebastian’s beliefs about what he truly deserves threaten to come between them and the happiness that lies within their grasp.
This story strongly resembles a gothic tale with a scarred and bitter hero, a dark, scary mansion, and a beautiful, innocent heroine who brings the hero back from the brink. I loved Lang’s character development, the steampunk angle of the recently concluded American Civil War, and the fact that she introduces the moral question of how responsible an inventor is when his creations are used to kill. The only piece I did not enjoy was that Lang is rather “closed door” in her sex scenes, making this story a little sweet for my taste. Lily Lang has a small oeuvre (unsurprising as she lists her main occupation as a graduate student) but she’ll be an author I keep a close eye on. I may try one of her intriguingly blurbed historical romances just to see if she carries these strengths in her other works.
“The Clockwork Bride” by Patricia Eimer
Aida Mulvaney feels that her attendance at a Christmas ball is a waste of time when she could be at home with her family working in the lab, but her best friend Esther uses blackmail to get her there. Blackmail is exactly what it takes, considering that this Irish engineer is heading straight to a masquerade given by Lord Capshaw, the Empire’s leading anti-Irish, misogynistic leader of the Luddite party.
It’s also been three weeks since Aida’s friend Leopold walked out on their engagement, one undertaken to spare him from an arranged match. That he’s a prince and son of Queen Victoria (who is nothing short of enraged at Leopold’s temporary defiance and Aida’s Irish cheek) doesn’t put Aida in a great position, either from a business standpoint or as the butt of gossip throughout London. Still, she’s in disguise this night, so how bad can it be?
Being at the home of her greatest enemy is taking her mind off losing her friend, particularly when a mystery man helps her escape the arrival of Leopold and his insipid German fiancee. Her savior seems happy to take his payment by kissing the stuffing out of her in a dark alcove, but it’s a welcome development to the night. Welcome, that is, until he takes off his mask and she discovers the gorgeous son of her enemy, Julian Capshaw.
Aida also discovers that Julian is actually a talented scientist, a profession unheard of among the nobility, and he demonstrates the extent of his rebellion by whisking Aida away to a party on a dirigible. When he boldly suggests that she solve her current scandal by helping him free himself from his father via marriage, she’s startled but intrigued. She knows that as a scientist who respects her chosen profession, Julian will understand the time she needs for her engineering work so she capitulates to the idea. That there is plenty of steam being generated between them physically doesn’t exactly hurt either. But as this unlikely partnership grows into something more tender, Julian’s powerful father and a resentful Queen attempt to insure these two will never have a chance to explore the future they could have together.
My single criticism of the story was that it was told in the first person from Aida’s perspective; Julian was SUCH a gorgeous hunk of a hero I wanted to experience his point of view throughout the story, too. I loved the steampunk world Eimer created, particularly appreciating how Aida’s loving Irish family created an environment where she could thrive as a brilliant inventor despite political and social obstacles. Julian is the most unlikely match to an Irish commoner, yet from a personality standpoint he is her ideal partner and that comes through with both their heat and their banter. Even though Patricia Eimer seems to have her other books published under the umbrella of contemporary paranormal, I’d strongly encourage her to keep up the Steampunk since she does it damn well!
“Demon Express” by Candace Havens
Professor Maisey Clark has left her research to work as an assassin with a single target – her former fiancee, Julian Darvil. Following him from London to deep in the heart of Texas, she’s glad to capture three grave robbers for her client as his recent trouble – isolated attacks against cattle in the Forth Worth area, coincidentally happening around the same time as grave robbing – indicates Julian’s evil involvement. When the three men turn out to be investigators also hired by her client, she’s annoyed that they have gotten in her way, particularly the leader, Marshall Jake Calloway, fresh from helping the Texas Rangers. His long hair and facial scar do not detract from his overall appeal, but right now she sees this tall hunk of man as an obstacle rather than an ally.
Working and living in her private steam engine, the Iron Witch, Maisey spends her time analyzing blood samples in order to determine if the presence of Julian’s supernatural creatures is causing the phenomena in the area. Created by her father with enhanced abilities and raised from childhood as an assassin of supernatural creatures, Maisey wanted to pursue her intellectual interests but ended up using her natural born skills once Julian attempted to seduce her into creating Wollstonecraftian creatures mutated by viruses in order become the ideal warrior. Needless to say, Maisey hasn’t had an easy road with men, but luckily for her she is surrounded by people who love her, whether it’s her English mastiff Henry, her enhanced acerbic butler Barnes, or the ghost of her dead nanny who sticks around to clean and cook for her, while leveling judgement on Maisey’s choice of clothing.
This outstanding story will leave you wanting more, both from the fascinating world (more gaslight than steampunk since it includes the supernatural as well as clockwork elements) to the wonderful characters which inhabit it. While I was a little miffed at Patricia Eimer telling her story from the first person, Havens does the same and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because the tone of the story lands closer to Urban Fantasy. I’m really hoping that this story is a prequel to a full-length novel since Jake and Maisey do not get together (although there’s plenty of sexual attraction) and there is an abundance of conflict and plot developments to support a longer storyline. While Havens is a varied, talented writer able to pen seemingly any genre (her contemporary romance, nonfiction about popular culture, and her paranormal writing are all equally wonderful), I don’t think she’s done a tone of steampunk/gaslight, a fact I hope she rectifies considering how much I adore her writing.
A Riveting Affair is a fantastic steampunk anthology for lovers of the genre who enjoy strong female protagonists filled with intelligence and gumption. I strongly recommend this terrific bargain of a book for anyone wanting to be riveted for a few hours. Happy reading!