I found Gilded hard to review and hard to grade. There are many things I liked about it, particularly the setting, world-building, and primary characters. But though I fundamentally got the story arc, I wasn’t very happy with the way this book ended.
This book is the second of The St. Croix Chronicles, described as historical urban fantasy, though I would say it has a dash of steampunk thrown in. In this alternative version of Victorian London, the city exists on two planes. The wealthy and respectable live in their own realm, in a raised city built above the hopelessly polluted original city. The poor, criminal, marginalized, and disrespectful live below the “drift”, a noxious, thick fog.
Our heroine, Cherry St. Croix, has a foot in both worlds. She’s an heiress of somewhat questionable respectability, not really accepted in London society. She can’t touch her money until she’s of age, which is really too bad since she has a costly opium habit. You can’t blame her really, as she hasn’t had an easy go of it. Her father, who died at the end of the first book, was an unethical genius specializing in alchemy and mechanics. Apparently he tried to bring her dead mother back to life using Cherry’s living body and some kind of freaky procedure and machinery. Cherry only narrowly survived, brought back to life by Micajah Hawke (who used some mysterious sexual means to do it). Before Cherry was an heiress she actually worked in Micajah’s circus, and she owes him money. Anyway, Cherry supplements her income with bounty hunting (or as it’s called here, collecting). She heads below the drift, disguising her bright red hair and wearing men’s trousers, looks for notices of wanted people, and collects them. As a female collector she is something of a rarity.
Still with me? Because that’s just the background info. There’s a lot to this, and I came into it in the middle myself. As this book opens up, Cherry and her faithful servant/companion Zylphia are below the drift, exploring the site where Cherry’s father nearly killed her. Cherry finds mysterious markings which she records, knowing they hold some secret to her father’s quest. While she begins to explore these, one of her only respectable allies, Lady Rutledge, issues her a challenge. Two professors have been murdered, and Lady Rutledge wants Cherry to find out who did it and why. Oh, and Cherry has a chaperone who wants her to marry Lord Cornelius Compton, a wealthy earl who has taken a fancy to her.
If my synopsis (of sorts) sounds a little, well, ADD, it has nothing on the book. Cherry has a lot going on, and she is frequently doing something else when – oh, shiny! – she will swiftly change directions and focus her attention elsewhere entirely. Basically Gilded centers around Cherry solving the mystery, trying to sleep (with little success), deciding what to do about Lord Compton’s suit, and occasionally remembering that she needs money and trying to “collect” (also unsuccessfully), all while her chaperone Fanny tries to get her to quit leaving at night and act like a respectable lady (good luck with that).
While such things are doubtless a matter of taste, I didn’t mind the ADD tilt-a-whirl plot in the slightest. If anything, I think more people should write like that. I was seldom bored with the plot, because it was moving so fast that would hardly have been possible. And the inventive plot was coupled with a unique setting and interesting world. While I am sure I missed out on some details coming into the series n the middle, I felt like Copper gave enough background information to fill in the salient details.
I also liked Cherry, opium/laudanum addiction and all. Let’s face it: The addiction simply made her more novel and interesting. I liked Cornelius Compton too, probably more than Cherry, and there’s where I ran into trouble. If you can read this book and like him a little less than I did, you’ll be much better off. In the end, Cornelius’s fate changed my own feelings about the book. I liked so much about it, but didn’t like where it ended up at all.
I do feel that Gilded has much to recommend it. But even knowing that it wasn’t a romance, I couldn’t shake my disappointment. If you are intrigued by the idea of historical urban fantasy, this is certainly a good place to start. But you’ll have to check your need for a happy ending at the door.