Of Silk and Steam
For some reason I can no longer remember, I picked up Of Silk and Steam, the fifth book in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series before reading the previous four (and didn’t get around to posting a review here!), but fortunately enjoyed it sufficiently to want to go back and read those and then to read the spin-off Blue Blood Conspiracy series, which concluded earlier this year.
In these books, the author has created a complex world full of intrigue and danger, and an intricate social hierarchy which is teetering on the brink. In this version of Victorian London, steam and clockwork are powering technological advances, and the ruling classes are blue-bloods, who have superhuman strength, the ability to heal quickly and recover from almost anything – and who are, as a result, hard to kill. Only the highest born are selected to become blue-bloods, infected with the craving virus as part of a ritual and needing a regular supply of blood in order to survive. (It sounds like vampirism, but in this world, a vampire is a blue-blood coming to the end of their lives, one who loses their humanity and becomes a mindless killer). The country is ruled by the Echelon, the council of blue-blood dukes, and the queen and her prince-consort. But the queen is little more than a puppet, kept docile by the regular administration of drugs and her husband’s beatings, and the prince consort is the de facto ruler, a ruthless man who is steadily eliminating all opposition. The humans have been chafing against the harsh rule imposed upon them and punitive blood-taxes, leading to the rise of a humanist movement that is waiting for the moment to instigate rebellion.
Lord Leo Barrons is the son of the Duke of Caine, and has taken his father’s place on the Echelon due to the duke’s illness. But Leo is living a lie – he’s the duke’s acknowledged heir, but Caine is not his biological father – and he has long struggled to find his place in the world, feeling he doesn’t quite fit in among the ruling classes, and having to hide his humanist sympathies. But when the truth of his birth is unexpectedly revealed, he is accused of treason and has to run for his life – taking with him as a hostage Lady Aramina Duvall, the Duchess of Casavian who is one of only two female blue-bloods and a close friend of Queen Alexia. The only people Leo can turn to are his siblings and their spouses, who operate from London’s rookeries and who are also heavily involved in the upcoming rebellion.
Leo and Aramina – Mina – have a history going back years. She holds Leo and his father responsible for the slow, painful death of her father and wants revenge, but she’s also fighting an attraction to Leo that she wants to pretend doesn’t exist. She’s a great character – a strong, independent woman in what is very much a man’s world, a woman who wields a great deal of power and influence but who is walking a political tightrope, trying to help the queen and preserve her appearance of loyalty to the Echelon while at the same time working behind the scenes to bring about its downfall.
Leo has been deeply attracted to Mina for years, but his attitude towards her tends towards the light-hearted and flirtatious; he’s trying to show her he cares for her but without the risk of showing her too much. But deep down, he longs for the kind of contentment his sisters have in their relationships; he wants someone to belong to and who belongs to him, and his heart is set on Mina. His kindness towards her keeps Mina off-balance, causing her to question everything she’s ever believed about him, but she’s become so used to protecting herself from everyone and everything around her, to walling off her emotions and focusing on her cause that she can’t quite bring herself to take that final step and trust him, even when it appears they might actually be working towards the same end.
Together, they’re an explosive combination. They strike sparks off each other all the time, and as a working team, they’re fantastic, too. One of the really admirable things about Leo is the way he trusts Mina to be able to do what needs to be done. Even when their backs are against the wall and everything in him is crying out to go to her and protect her, he knows she’s capable of getting the job done and lets her do it. Their romance is passionate and sexy, as Mina’s Ice Maiden persona finally melts under Leo’s determined pursuit. Along the way, they forge a deep emotional connection as well, discovering that perhaps they have more in common than either of them had ever thought possible. My one issue with their relationship is that while Leo put himself out there time after time and proves himself worthy of trust, Mina keeps holding back and refusing to take that final step and let herself believe in him, which gets a little frustrating, especially in the later stages of the book.
Of Silk and Steam is a fast-paced, action-packed read, full of political intrigue and unexpected plot twists, culminating in a revolution and a nail-biting showdown. Bec McMaster does a splendid job building her steampunk vision of London, the romance is very well done and the writing and characterisation is very strong all round. It brings this phase of the story to a very satisfactory close, and earns a strong recommendation.