(St. Croix Chronicles #1)
Release: June 26, 2012
My name is Cherry St. Croix. Society would claim that I am a well-heeled miss with an unfortunate familial reputation. They've no idea of the truth of it. In my secret world, I hunt down vagrants, thieves . . . and now, a murderer. For a monster stalks London's streets, leaving a trail of mystery and murder below the fog.
Eager for coin to fuel my infatuations, I must decide where my attentions will turn: to my daylight world, where my scientific mind sets me apart from respectable Society, or to the compelling domain of London below. Each has a man who has claimed my time as his--for good or for ill. Though as the corpses pile, and the treacherous waters of Society gossip churn, I am learning that each also has its dangers. One choice will see me cast from polite company . . . the other might just see me dead.
Tarnished is the first in a new historical steampunk series by paranormal romance author Karina Cooper. This series veers away from the steamy romance of Cooper's other books into very different territory.
Set in an alternate turn-of-the-century London, the St. Croix Chronicles follows independent young woman Cherry as she navigates (read: avoids) society life, juggles the mild attention of two very different men, and leads a double life as a collector. Typically a man's job, a collector is kind of like today's bounty hunter. Cherry sneaks out at night and goes to the darkest parts of town to do her secret job.
Cherry is a great main character - likable and smart but also complex. She is the child of the famed 'mad scientist' who died long ago along with her mother. Having some of that scientist's mind in her, she is interested in many things that a woman of her time is typically not. She is also an opium addict. The story behind where this addiction stems from is very intriguing and I'm hoping we learn more about Cherry's childhood and abuse in the circus. (It looks at though we might get more of this back story in the sequel to this book.) In fact, much of the money she earns as a collector goes toward supporting this habit.
"Tincture of opium, if you'd be so kind."
His eyes gleamed over half-moon lenses. "Opium eater, eh?"
The question wasn't entirely unsympathetic, but my back straightened. "Do I look like a Turk to you?" I snapped. "It's for sleeping." But I tasted the lie even as I claimed it with such authority.
It was never just for sleeping, was it?
The plot of this story is supposed to focus on the mystery of a serial killer taking the lives of women in the lower district. This was a partial focus for the book and I enjoyed all the parts of the plot that focused on this. However, the plot also veers into historical fiction at several times. There is a lot of discussion of Cherry's 'polite society' behavior (or lack thereof), a ball that she attends, tea with a close friend, etc. There is nothing wrong with these things being in the story, I just felt like having elements such as these turn up so often kept detracting from the "steampunk murder mystery" the book's blurb sold me on.
And speaking of steampunk, although this book is light on steampunk elements what is does have is fresh and new in this genre. Cooper creates an alternative London where the upper class lives in high class portions of London that have been raised off the ground on steel beams and are connected by bridges. This is due to a nasty fog created by the industrial revolution. The poorer class lives below on the regular streets of London and in the gross fog. Many wear goggles, masks, or even respirators when traveling below. And I don't want to give away all of the fun, but the 'traveling' is done on little wooden boats. Some go up and down on a lift to bring people from upper London to below or vice versa. Some or steered almost like the gondolas of Italy to move around upper London. It is very creative and believable.
Finally, I must discuss my love-hate relationship with the men in this story. I knew going in that this book was not heavy on romance. There are two men in this book that have the capacity for possible love interests throughout this series. I liked both of them and was confused by both of them at the same time. Lord Compton is the proper gentleman whom Cherry meets at a ball. They have a very nice and proper friendship. Its not quite a courtship, but its clear that both are romantically interested in the other. There is nothing wrong with this particular character other than the fact that he is slight boring and typical. And then, all of the sudden, he's absent from the story. I was a little baffled by this and hope its rectified in the next book.
The other man is Hawke, who owns the Midnight Menagerie. The Menagerie is a dark and seductive place that is mostly a brothel. He is a gruff and secretive man and obviously I was rooting for him since I tend to cheer for the bad boys in my books! He was an odd character though and I was confused by some of his actions toward the books' end. Neither man jumped off the pages for me and made my heart flutter though, so I guess we will have to wait and see what the sequel brings.
All in all, Tarnished is enjoyable and intriguing. I wasn't glued to the pages but I was definitely entertained. I will certainly read the sequel, and hope that some of my questions from book one get answered.
Recommended for fans of: dark historical fiction, steampunk, turn of the century London, and likable strong heroines.