Desert Isle Keeper
In The Gangster, the second book in C.S. Poe’s entertaining and exciting Magic & Steam series, we join Special Agent Gillian Hamilton for another exhilarating adventure, this time on his home turf of New York City. As in the first book – The Engineer – the story is fast-paced and clever, featuring well-drawn, interesting characters and a number of vivid, expertly realised action scenes, and the author’s world-building continues to impress. Readers are immersed in a recognisable vision of Gilded Age New York, but with significant differences – such as the magic-powered airships (the quintessential steampunk mode of transport!) that have replaced the transcontinental railroad – due to the harnessing of magic as a commodity during the so-called Great Rebellion – surely this world’s version of the American Civil War.
At the end of The Engineer, Gillian left Shallow Grave in Arizona to return to New York – but carries with him a promise from Gunner the Deadly – the outlaw with whom he’d become romantically involved – that they will see each other again on New Year’s Eve. Gillian is alternately hopeful and anxious, desperately wanting to see Gunner again while trying to talk himself into not being too disappointed when Gunner doesn’t show. Because what could a gorgeous, uber-confident, gun-slinging cowboy possibly see in an unprepossessing, repressed individual like Gillian?
It’s 31st December 1881, but before Gillian has to face either joy or disappointment, there’s a day’s work to be done, and on this particular day, he’s chasing down a lowlife called Fishback, a criminal known to have a penchant for killing cops and for working for some of the city’s biggest organised crime syndicates. Gillian suspects Fishback is acting as the middle-man in the trade of weapons that use illegal elemental magic – and when he’s eventually able to question him, those suspicions are confirmed. Fishback delivers the shipments – which originate somewhere “out West” – to Tick-Tock, a newly-arrived and widely feared crime boss/gangster who, so far, nobody has ever seen. Not even Fishback, who tells Gillian he meets with a magical mechanical man who picks up the deliveries on Tick Tock’s behalf.
Shortly after the interview, Gillian heads to Grand Central to pick up Gunner. He’s late, and worries that he’s missed Gunner or worse, Gunner hasn’t come at all. But he has. Their reunion is restrained because they’re in a public place, but Gillian is overjoyed and relieved to see the man who has occupied almost his every waking thought for the past two months. And miraculously, it seems Gunner is pleased to see Gillian, too.
Gillian and Gunner barely have a moment to themselves (although they do put the few moments they have to very good use!) before they’re plunged headlong into a breathless game of cat-and-mouse with the most dangerous individual in the city. And while they’re battling nightmarish mechanical men – gruesome half man/half machines with weapons surgically grafted to their bodies – fending off attacks from illegal magic and fighting for their lives in some really vivid, well-conceived action scenes, there are some lovely moments of introspection and emotional closeness, too, which cement and strengthen the connection between them.
Gillian and Gunner are both likeable, compelling characters it’s easy to invest in and root for. In The Engineer, it was obvious there was more to Gillian than met the eye, and here the author sheds more light on what he’s hiding. It’s also clear that he’s keeping some big, dark secret that he’s ashamed of and afraid of, something he seems to be desperately trying to atone for that has convinced him he’s unworthy of love or affection and that he doesn’t deserve good things in life. He’s desperately lonely, rigidly controlled and hides himself in plain sight, but keeping himself hidden (in more ways than one) for over a decade is starting to take its toll, and at times we get a glimpse of a man close to the edge, someone dangerous and volatile. But he’s also endearingly shy and charming with a dry sense of humour and a clearly defined sense of right and wrong… although the line between them has blurred a bit since he met Gunner.
Self-possessed, sexy Gunner is the perfect foil for Gillian, injecting some calm into his hectic life. He encourages Gillian to embrace who he is and what he wants, providing solid support and reassurance on personal issues and has his back without question when they have to face off with the bad guys. He’s not a great talker, but when he does have something to say he’s usually to the point and incredibly insightful; he sees Gillian in a way nobody else has, and has discerned things about him that no-one else seems to have noticed – that Gillian is a great deal more powerful than he lets on, and that there’s something devastating and immensely painful in his past. But he knows better than to push for details; he’s prepared to bide his time and wait for Gillian to tell him the truth.
The Gangster is a terrific blend of tender romance and rollicking adventure yarn that will have you ‘heart-eyes’ and on the edge of your seat by turns. The mystery is nicely done, with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers guessing, and I liked the glimpses we got of Gillian’s work life and of his relationship with his boss – who, he’s only just worked out, may possibly be harbouring a tendre for him. The author’s descriptions of the New York locations are really evocative, and her depictions of the mechanical men and Gillian’s amazing feats of magic are inventive and full of imagery so vivid and colourful as to create a lasting impression in the mind’s eye. And best of all, the love story is never pushed aside in favour of the plot; there are some wonderfully loving moments between Gillian and Gunner, and even though the story takes place over just a few days, by the end, they’ve admitted that they want more from each other and there’s a new, deeper level of intimacy between them. Which is when Ms. Poe drops one helluva bombshell that had me (mentally) screaming “nooooooooooooo!” and searching frantically to see if I could find a release date for book three!
So, yes, there’s a cliffhanger, but don’t let that put you off. The Gangster is a thrilling and utterly captivating instalment in the Magic & Steam series, and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the release of book three, The Doctor. I hope it’s not too long a wait!