Debut author Kristen Callihan creates a moody, gothic vision of Victorian England for her characters and there is a lot about this book that I liked. However, the curious lack of intensity to the romance for much of the book combined with some rather odd pacing also provided less likable moments. In the end, this proved a difficult book to grade, but I decided I was glad to have read it and I’ll probably check out the sequel.
In the book’s opening scene, we see our heroine, Miranda Ellis, dressed in boy’s clothing and sparring with a friend. She crosses paths with our hero, though she doesn’t realize who he is at the time. Unbeknownst to her, Benjamin Archer is determined to destroy her father, but after meeting Miranda, he finds himself intrigued by her and starts to formulate a somewhat different plan. As we see in the following scenes, Miranda herself is somewhat haunted by secrets for she harbors a “gift” that she considers a curse because it has caused her father great losses as well as ruining her own marriage prospects. We soon figure out that Daddy Dearest might not place caring for his daughter at the top of his priority list as he quickly pushes her into marriage with Archer in order to save his own hide. The fact that the prospective groom has a less than stellar reputation seems not to deter him.
And Archer certainly is a rather mysterious man. He wears a mask at all times, leading most in society to speculate as to the nature of his terrible deformity. He and Miranda marry quickly at the beginning of the book, but even after they are married, Archer will not show her his face. Then again, she takes pains to keep her own unusual ability concealed from her new husband as well. Their marriage gets off to an unusual but somewhat promising start. It’s obvious that the two have at least some attraction to one another, even if Archer does seem to waver between paying attention to Miranda and then turning cold. Does this sound a bit like a Beauty and the Beast story to you? That’s how it struck me, too, though there are definitely some variations on the theme.
Before too long, suspense intrudes and the story kicks up a few notches. Miranda already wondered about Archer’s secrets, and when he obviously becomes a man on a quest, she is determined to ferret them out. Men are being murdered in London, and what little evidence there is leads back to Archer. Determined to clear his name, Archer sets out to figure out what has happened to these victims, all of whom he knows. The hunt for the killer leads Archer and Miranda into some very convoluted intrigue, and the world Callihan creates definitely has some fascinating moments.
However, the romance between Archer and Miranda needed to read a little more smoothly than it did. At times, the author writes scenes aching with tension and one wonders if this couple will ever fall in love with each other and be happy together. Unfortunately, much of the romance start to get buried beneath the murder plot. In addition, the secret of Miranda’s powers and of what lies under Archer’s mask stay mysteries for entirely too long. We can tell from the beginning that each of the leads hides something, but the middle of the story sags a bit and the faint hints dropped here and there just do not advance the plot enough. By the time the characters finally got around to the big reveal, I’d started to lose interest. And that’s a shame, because the author had set up a brooding, intense world and this story could have had much more power if the middle hadn’t meandered so much.
In addition, the revelation of secrets affects not only the progress of Miranda and Archer’s romance, but also of the entire suspense plot. While the worldbuilding continues to intrigue, substantial progress toward solving the mystery stalls until finally the secrets come out. And this led to a story which, while interesting to read, still felt like it had all of the really good action piled into the last few chapters. It made the middle feel overly languid and the end a tad rushed. However, the story still entertained and I still found the world within this book quite an original one. Despite the pacing issues, I did like the author’s writing style and I’ll be curious to see what she does with her next book.