Desert Isle Keeper
This third book in C.S. Poe’s Magic & Steam series is one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2022, and it absolutely did not disappoint. After the massive cliffhanger at the end of The Gangster, the author had some serious ground to cover in The Doctor in terms of furthering and pulling together the various plot-threads she laid out in the previous books, and in continuing to develop the romance between quietly-controlled lawman Gillian Hamilton and sexy outlaw Gunner the Deadly while also revealing more of their backstories. She pulls it all off with considerable aplomb, moving the story along at a swift pace and incorporating some superbly written set pieces and action scenes while also giving prominence to moments of insight, connection and tenderness between Gillian and Gunner that are heart-meltingly lovely in their understatedness.
Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.
The Gangster ended on a massive clliffhanger when the past Gillian has worked so long and so hard to hide finally caught up with him. In a last-minute bombshell, we learned his real name is Simon Fitzgerald and that he’s been a wanted war criminal since he was just a boy, for atrocities he was forced to commit during the Great Conflict (this universe’s version of the American Civil War.) Before he was arrested, Gillian sent Gunner away for his own protection (he’s a wanted man, after all) – and in the weeks since then, Gillian has been incarcerated at The Home for the Magically Insane on Blackwell’s Island.
Starved, humiliated, abused and assailed by horrific memories, Gillian fears for both his life and his sanity, knowing he’s destined to be locked away until such time as those in power – the non-magical politicians who founded the FBMS – want to make use of him and his unparallelled magical abilities. He also knows there’s much more at stake, a threat to the magical community he’s now powerless to do anything about, tears in the atmosphere that are damaging the undercurrent of power drawn on by magic users that he believes are being caused by quintessence, a new, illegal kind of magic he and Gunner had discovered being used by the gangster, Tick Tock.
The one person who takes Gillian’s concern seriously is Eugene Barrie, a visiting doctor who helps him to escape the asylum and arranges to accompany him to California, where Gillian believes he’ll be able to track down the architect (spell-creator) who built the illegal spells, and Sawbones, the man responsible for creating Tick Tock’s grotesque army of half-human, half-mechanical men. And maybe he’ll be able to find Gunner, too, and apologise for sending him away – although he can’t help worrying that Gunner might want nothing more to do with him. However, all is not as it seems, and just a couple of days into the journey, Barrie is revealed to have nefarious ulterior motives.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, so I’ll just say that my jaw dropped a little further with each revelation as more of the story’s intricately woven web of connections is slowly revealed. Gillian and Gunner are dramatically reunited, and I just adore how in tune they are with each other, how they continue to grow together and love each other with such ferocity and genuine devotion. They fit so well together, Gunner’s steadfast support and strong protective streak just what Gillian needs after having been so very alone all his life.
Gillian’s secrets aren’t the only ones to come to light in this book, however. Gunner has been an enigmatic figure so far, a man who doesn’t lie but who is always very careful about what he says, and I’m so glad we’re – finally – getting to know more about him. The truth of his past comes as a complete surprise (more jaw-dropping!) and I may have squealed in delight when the thread tying Gunner and Gillian together was revealed :) But there’s not too much time for wallowing in that connection as we hurtle towards a thrilling and high-stakes climax – which culminates in a shocking discovery that promises a greater threat, to both the magical world and Gillian and Gunner personally.
Both men are immensely likeable, complex, yet flawed characters who are easy to become invested in. Beneath the self-effacing stickler, Gillian is an endearingly sweet but prickly and vulnerable badass with a dry sense of humour and a driving need to do the right thing no matter the personal cost. He’s been through so much – his backstory is heartbreaking – but he’s a survivor, and I was so pleased to see him owning his truth and ready to love Gunner openly at last. I also loved that he’s no longer hiding his incredible power, and the moments when he really lets rip with his magic are deeply statisfying and vividly written, putting the reader right in the middle of the action. And while Gunner could easily have been a strong, silent stereotype, the affection for Gillian that radiates from him, the way he shows that affection in every word and deed, makes him so much more than a two-dimenstional cypher who’s there only to provide the muscle and the firepower. As is very clear, Gillian doesn’t need firepower, he needs someone to see him and believe in him – and Gunner is that someone.
I was pleased to catch up with some of the secondary characters from previous books, including Gillian’s boss, Loren Moore – his exchanges with Gunner provide some much-needed humour (and I couldn’t help sighing just a bit over Jealous!Gunner), and bare-knuckle fighter Addison O’Dea, who comes through for Gillian at a time of great need. The bad guys are the worst kind of evil – power-hungry, amoral, totally unscrupulous – who, at times, made my skin crawl. I can’t wait to see their plans thwarted, although right now, it’s looking like our heroes have a really tough road ahead.
It seems C.S. Poe loves to torment her readers, as The Doctor ends with another cliffhanger – this time relating to Gunner’s past (a clever mirror of the one in the previous book), which left me stunned, cursing and wondering just how much more heartache is in store for these two. But I’m in it for the long haul, so I’ll be here for book four, The Councilman, (the author recently confirmed this will be a five-book series) which honestly can’t get here soon enough.
The Doctor is a real edge-of-your-seat read; a fantastic combination of action, adventure and romance with loveable (and un-loveable!) characters and a skilfully developed steampunk world. The plot unfolds magnificently, the pacing is perfect, the writing evocative, and the emotional highs and lows will deliver happy sighs and punches to the gut. The Magic & Steam series one of the best ongoing series around, and with The Doctor, it gets even better.
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