Do you like historical romance with a bit of suspense and a lot of steam (wink!)? Are you looking for something a bit different from your usual historical fare? Haven’t read Bec McMaster? Well, my friends, you’re in for a treat – and a prolonged binge. Ms. McMaster is best known for her two excellent steampunk series, London Steampunk and The Blueblood Conspiracy; they’re wonderfully addictive and uniformly great. In her Dark Arts trilogy, she stays in the Victorian era, but turns her attention to demons and sorcerers. Complex world building, principals with scorching chemistry, sexual tension, suspense – it’s all here. Soulbound is the final book in the trilogy and frankly, you’ll be lost if try to read it on its own; as a result, there will be spoilers for the other books in this review.
A quick primer on what’s happened so far: The Dark Arts novels are set in an alternate reality Victorian-era London wherein sorcerers and magic coexist with humans. The books are linked by the three Relics Infernal – a blade, a chalice and a wand – and three estranged brothers – Lucien (Shadowbound), Adrian – “Bishop” (Hexbound), and Sebastian, all sired by Drake, the current Prime (leader of the sorcerous Order of the Dawn Star). Shadowbound, the first book, introduced a large cast of secondary characters – both good and evil – with different kinds of powers, and a doomsday prophecy wherein the downfall of the Prime is foretold:
When the red comet rules the skies, the Prime shall fall. A new Prime shall Ascend to the head of the Order. Three sons. Three relics. Three sacrifices. Only then can the Prime be torn down.
There is but one chance to save them. The Snake at the Breast shall cast the first roll of the die, setting the Game into motion, but might be all that holds back the pall of madness. The Thief shall wear a false face, but wield a true heart; and only the Blind One can see how to save the heart of the Mirror.
In Shadowbound, the blade goes missing and Lucien, imprisoned in Bedlam for unwittingly helping the Earl of Rathbourne summon a demon (Lucien had believed Rahtbourne to be his father), is freed in exchange for his help finding it. He’s learned that Drake is his biological father and that he has two half-brothers – Bishop and Sebastian. The search for the blade leads to Drake’s ex-wife Morgana, and to Sebastian – the son Drake never knew existed and Morgana claimed was dead. It’s a race against the clock to find and safeguard the relics, and stop a demon from destroying the world.
When Hexbound concludes, the Order still doesn’t have the blade or the wand, and the demon, cloaked in Drake’s body after he sacrificed himself to free Sebastian, is loose – but no one quite knows what he has planned. The Order of the Dawn frantically searches for the Relics Infernal, and a way to defeat the demon and save Drake. Sebastian, finally free, struggles to overcome his past; Cleo, his wife, can’t break through the barriers he’s erected between them.
I’m not going to tell you much about the demon and his nefarious plans, except to say that Cleo plays a significant role in them, and that the demon has had an ace up his sleeve all along. The Relics Infernal and the three brothers figure prominently in the climactic ending but if you’ve made it this far, you want to know about the relationship between Sebastian and Cleo.
In Shadowbound Sebastian and Cleo Sinclair, the daughter of the Earl of Tremayne (who, along with Morgana and Drake, helped create the Relics Infernal) were joined in a marriage of convenience. Enslaved to Morgana by a Scavlus Collar (which, when paired with a magical ring, forced incredible pain on Sebastian whenever he tried to defy Morgana), Sebastian had no choice but to marry Cleo, but Cleo, whose powers lay in her gift for prediction and divination, was blind and at the mercy of her father’s machinations. Their first meeting, wherein a blindfolded Cleo sensed Sebastian watching her, revealed a subtle attraction between them. Further interactions since then have only increased their attraction and affection for each other despite their tortured pasts.
When Soulbound begins, Sebastian is living with Bishop, who despite his distrust of Sebastian, is trying to teach him to harness and control his massive power as a sorcerer so that he can help defeat the demon. Cleo, freed of the blindfold she’s worn her entire life, is ensconced in the care of Lucien and his wife Ianthe, the current Prime. Sebastian has spent his life used and abused (emotionally, physically and sexually), at the mercy of the Scavlus Collar and his mother, and he’s struggling to accept any kindness – let alone the love and affection his wife wants to give him. He’s frustrated, but determined to find and destroy Morgana and the demon/Drake. He can’t understand why these people care for him, or believe he deserves any of it. Cleo is tormented by a dark vision featuring Sebastian and scared of what it might mean. She tries to break through the barriers Sebastian has erected to keep her at a distance, but it’s obvious to her that he’s fighting to keep her at bay. She’s struggling to balance her new gift of sight with her power as a diviner and visions of a dark future.
As the novel progresses, Sebastian slowly but surely begins to accept the affection of those around him, and to open his heart to Cleo, letting her love cleanse him of his past. Cleo isn’t willing to accept only the scraps of Sebastian’s heart or his token kindness – she wants him heart and soul – and she makes it clear that it’s all or nothing if he wants to be with her. The evolution of the relationship – from emotional closeness to physical intimacy – is particularly well done, and Ms. McMaster (as usual) shows a deft hand ramping up the attraction between them until they finally consummate their marriage. Theirs is a sexy, affectionate and sweet union, and their powerful connection allows them to eventually overcome their personal demons. It’s easy to feel compassion for Sebastian, and wonderful witnessing Cleo guiding him as he learns to love both himself and those around him – including his father. In turn, Sebastian teaches Cleo to believe in herself and to recognize her own value and strength. They’re a lovely, devoted couple and our demon – well, he messed with the wrong pair.
Soulbound is an exciting conclusion to the Dark Arts trilogy, and Ms. McMaster does a terrific job tying all three novels together. Though Sebastian and Cleo – and their evolving personal relationship are the focus of the novel – their powerful union links the stories together and allows good to triumph over evil. I enjoyed every bit of it (though Hexbound is my favorite) and can’t wait for her new series which will feature a few of the VERY intriguing characters we meet in Dark Arts.