With Tarnished, Karina Cooper gives readers the first installment of a steampunk series with great promise. However, for most of the book, promise is all we get as plot gets sacrificed somewhat to extensive worldbuilding and the laying of groundwork for what one can only presume will be future books. It’s not bad reading, but the combination of a painfully slow first half followed by an entertaining second does make it feel uneven.
Cooper’s vision of late Victorian London captures the imagination right away. Bothered by the smoke and pollution of industrialization and an increasing urban population, the ruling classes hit upon a unique solution. Anything important to those in charge was raised above the city, and those wealthy enough to do likewise followed suit. This created a divided realm, where the residents of London above live in cleaner air, using their vehicles to traverse those parts of the city that lie “above the drift,” or above the city smog. Poorer folk live below the drift, where the pollution causes eyes to burn and where those fortunate enough to afford them wear breathing devices when going out.
Cherry St. Croix lives with a foot in each world. As the ward of a wealthy man and the daughter of a family with Society ties, she lives above the drift. However, her father’s reputation makes her place in Society an uneasy one and her own troubled past makes it difficult for her to settle into the role expected of her. As a child, Cherry survived the fire that claimed her parents, but she spent time as an orphan in rather unsavory surroundings before being located by her guardian. During that time, she was fed opiates in order to keep her under control and even in adulthood, she cannot shake the addiction.
Cherry leads something of a double life. She sneaks out to work as a “collector” below the drift. Based on the descriptions in the book, this seems to make Cherry something of a bounty hunter and it’s obvious that she uses the money she collects on her jobs to feed her need for laudanum and other forms of opium. Society above the drift barely tolerates Cherry for reasons that initially seem somewhat vague, but appear connected to her father’s reputed eccentricities, and Cherry is obviously more aristocratic than most of those below the drift so she does not fit in there either.
Since most of the opening of the book involves worldbuilding, there’s not a lot of plot action that one can summarize without giving spoilers. In the beginning of the book, we seek Cherry “collecting,” meet her unusual household, and witness some of her uncomfortable interactions with society above the drift. There are hints of a Ripper-style murderer on the hunt below the drift and it appears Cherry will get herself involved in trying to figure out who he is. None of this is poorly written or uninteresting, but things do build rather slowly and it took me quite a while to get into the book.
Those looking for romance should be aware that Tarnished is more steampunk fiction than pure romance. One gets hints of men both above and below the drift who have an interest in Cherry, but I suspect we will have to wait for future installments to see who might have a chance of winning her heart. I personally like the idea of following a heroine’s adventures over several books and seeing a romantic relationship develop over several installments as it gives so much more space for character development.
This book on its own has issues, but as part of a series, it shows promise. The slow buildup of the first part of the book started to accelerate by the second half and, while the various pieces of story came together a little too late for me in this installment, the world envisioned by Cooper intrigues. For that reason, I would give this novel a qualified recommendation because it does make me want to see what will come next.