Kiss of Steel
Kiss of Steel is Bec McMaster’s début novel and the first in her London Steampunk series. Rather like Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London novels, the books in this series are set in a recognisable Victorian London, which enables the author to get right into the story without the need for extensive description, as the locations and references to things like the London Underground and the rookeries are already familiar. She can then focus on initiating the reader into her vision of London as a grim, dangerous and divided city where the elite, quasi-vampires known as blue bloods rule and regard all other species – humans, mechs, verwulfen – as scum, useful only to them as menial workers, servants or thralls, slaves who provide a supply of fresh blood in exchange for protection. The blue bloods will stop at nothing to retain their power and influence, their superhuman strength and ability to self-heal making them virtually indestructible. But these abilities come at a price, as the virus to which they owe them – a virus they deliberately pass from generation to generation – will eventually turn each blue blood into a fully-fledged vampire, a mindless, almost invincible killer; and to prevent that happening, anyone showing signs of entering the Fade (a pre-vampyric state) is summarily executed.
Ms. McMaster does a fabulous job of getting across all those facts – and many more – during the story as and when the reader needs them without resorting to static info-dumps which disrupt the flow. The world she has created is a fascinating one that mirrors actual Victorian society in the huge divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, as well as putting a different twist on familiar paranormal tropes and setting the stage for the conflict between blue bloods and the other races that is going to run throughout the five full-length novels and two novellas that comprise the series.
Until the death of their scientist father six months ago, Honoria Todd and her younger siblings, Lena and Charlie, had lived under the protection of the Echelon, the ruling class formed of the highest aristocratic houses of the British Empire. Artemus Todd was working to find a vaccine against the craving virus, principally to prevent the accidental infection of servants, thralls, women and anyone else the Echelon deemed unworthy. But Todd also had a hidden purpose; he theorised that if sufficient numbers of the uninfected aristocracy and their children could be inoculated against the craving virus, the blue bloods would eventually die out. Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his experiments and Honoria and her siblings disappeared with his diary/notebook, infuriating Todd’s former patron, Lord Vickers, who has put a massive price on Honoria’s head.
The family has retreated to the one part of London that is more or less safe from the Echelon, the rookeries of Whitechapel, where Honoria changes her name and works as a finishing tutor at a local school. Life is hard; she doesn’t make enough money to keep them warm and fed, but even worse, Charlie has been accidentally infected with the craving virus and the medicine needed to keep it at bay is extremely expensive. Rogue blue bloods – anyone infected unintentionally or deemed unworthy – are not tolerated by the Echelon so Honoria is desperate to keep Charlie’s condition hidden for fear he will be taken away and either enslaved or killed. Worried about her siblings, their lack of money, the fate awaiting them if they are discovered… the last thing Honoria needs is a summons from the Devil of Whitechapel himself, Blade, a rogue blue blood who managed to escape the Echelon and make an empire of his own among the rookeries where he has ruled for the past fifty years. Nothing happens in Whitechapel without Blade’s knowing about it or allowing it, and the people who life on his turf are expected to pay for protection in one way or another. Having no wish to become his mistress or his thrall, Honoria offers the only thing she can; her services as a teacher of elocution and etiquette three evenings a week.
This rather odd bargain is the jumping off point for an action-packed, steamy and very well-devised story with a heartbreaking twist towards the end that had me glued to every single page. Blade and Honoria are strongly-written, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, and there’s an equally well-fleshed-out secondary cast, many of whom will no doubt feature as future heroes and heroines in their own books. At first glance, Blade is the sort of damaged alpha-hero found in many romances, but his struggles against the inner darkness that threatens him and the traumatic events of his past nonetheless made me care about him and want him to triumph over them. He’s got his own brand of charm, too; most definitely a diamond-in-the rough, he takes no prisoners but is deeply loyal to those he considers his own, and especially to the small ‘family’ he has built around him. He delights in rattling the rather starchy Honoria and delights just as much when she gives back as good as she gets – although he readily admits to himself that sometimes she confuses the hell out of him. Honoria is stubborn, intelligent and strong-willed; her desperation to protect her brother leads her to make one or two questionable decisions, and also to keep the truth of Charlie’s situation from the one man she knows who could help her for perhaps a bit too long. It’s somewhat frustrating to read, but it does make sense in the context of her character; she’s had to become completely self-reliant and to eye everything and everyone she encounters with suspicion in order to keep her family safe and hidden.
The relationship between this unlikely couple crackles with sexual tension from the moment they meet, and their romance is superbly developed. Large, well-muscled, brooding and careless of his appearance, Blade is the complete opposite of the elegant, pale-skinned, ennui-laden aristocrats amongst whom Honoria grew up, so she is surprised at the strength of the fascination she feels toward the dangerous, rogue blue blood who is everything she’s never wanted. Blade is just as drawn to the prim Honoria, sensing straight away that she is keeping secrets and determined to get them out of her. He’s impressed by her courage and inventiveness, her loyalty and her inner strength; they’re a great couple, the love scenes are sensual and earthy and their HEA is hard fought and well-deserved.
Kiss of Steel is a wonderfully imaginative, dark and gripping read featuring a seriously sexy and intense hero, a spunky heroine and an intriguing cast of secondary characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series, Heart of Iron.