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Book Review: Kiss of Steel

Kiss of Steel

by Bec McMaster

Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2012

As Bec McMaster’s new romance-steampunk novel Kiss of Steel opens, upstanding young Honoria Todd finds herself on the border of the dangerous ‘rookery’ of Whitechapel, in the heart of a Victorian London very different from the one in the history books. In McMaster’s carefully-built alternate world, the steam-and-gear-driven staple retro-technology of the steampunk sub-genre is everywhere, and the Western world is reeling to cope with a ‘blue blood’ virus that slowly turns its victims into something more – and very much less – than human. Honoria is working at her meagre-paying job in order to support herself and her young brother and sister, and in the book’s first scene, she’s headed home:

Scurrying along Church Street, Honoria tugged the edge of her cloak up to shield herself from the intermittent drizzle, but it did no good. Water gathered on the brim of her black top hat, and each step sent an icy droplet down the back of her neck.

When she’s stopped by a street urchin begging for money, she’s tempted to oblige:

She took her time drawing her slim change purse out and opening it. A handful of grimy shillings bounced pitifully in the bottom of it. Plucking one out with reluctance, she offered it to the little street rogue.

It’s not hard to guess where this kind of garbage comes from. “Scurrying,” “tugged,” “icy droplet,” “a handful of grimy shillings bounced pitifully,” of course “plucking” – this kind of nonsense-overwriting about mundane details is almost always the product of those lamentable “Punch Up Your Writing!” articles (or, Gawd help us, seminars) designed to convince otherwise-intelligent people that there’s something wrong with verbs like “went” or “looked” – or with skipping such verbs altogether. The street urchin, as you’d expect, “peers” at our heroine, despite the fact that people don’t “peer.” They don’t “scurry” or “tug.” Shillings don’t “bounce” in purses. Bec McMaster’s friends and family might protest that these things are happening in writing, and that it’s writing’s job to be vivid. This is certainly the justification put forward by those articles and seminars, boneheaded as they are. It’s a justification that reflects a curiously one-dimensional view of what writing is and what it does. Obviously, if you work hard to make every trivial detail in every paragraph vivid, you’re fundamentally misunderstanding how to exercise drama – which is a nasty thing to be misunderstanding if you’re in the business of telling stories.

Luckily, McMaster’s story here is a really good one: she’s created a fascinating world of ‘blue bloods’ whose infected, vampire-like bodies are superior to those of the healthy people all around them, a city world ruled by the Echelon of noble families whose reach extends everywhere except Whitechapel, which is ruled in its turn by an enigmatic man named Blade (portrayed on the book’s cover by a welcome, familiar face). The Echelon are afraid of their infection’s final phase, when they deteriorate past saving abilities of their carefully-maintained facade:

Thick white curls swept back from his high brow, heavily powdered in the Georgian style that most of the older blue bloods had not shaken. Sometimes he wondered if they did that to hide just how close they were to the Fade – those last few months when all color bleached out of their bodies and they became the blood-thirsty creatures they despised.

Although McMaster smartly raises broader concerns than individual blood-lust:

The city wouldn’t stand for another spate of vampires. People were already muttering about the drones taking their jobs, and how perhaps the French had done the smart thing by executing all of their blue bloods. The Echelon’s technology kept them under control, but the slightest provocation could set off the riots again.

Blade himself has more immediate, practical concerns – readers will smile at his professed desire to have Honoria give him elocution lessons: it’s a hoary old staple of Regency romances, here transplanted to a vampire-ridden London where assassins have metal blades extending from their hands.

Some parts of that vampire-ridden London will be very familiar to readers. Kiss of Steel is an ambitious series debut with a good deal of spirit behind it, but it wears its antecedents on its sleeve, especially Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula books. The novel’s steampunk elements are poorly used because, one suspects, McMasters hasn’t fully grasped the essential core of the sub-genre (it isn’t about the gadgets, it’s about what people think of them) – too many of those elements seem to be here just because our author thought they’d be cool. Nothing wrong with adding such elements to your story as you’re writing it – but you’re then supposed to strip them ruthlessly out of the finished manuscript.

Kiss of Steel is the first book in a series, and as has become the custom, Sourcebooks Casablanca (who did a fantastic job on the physical object of this book – the binding and paper stock are wonderful, despite a cover price that’s actually lower than the average) has included a little teaser-excerpt from the next book, Heart of Iron. It’s an action-scene, so it may not be indicative … but it’s refreshingly free of “peering” and “scurrying” – it just gets down to the business of entertaining us. To be fair, most of Kiss of Steel does that same thing, dropping the seminar-advice in order to straight-up thrill and amuse. It’s possible that McMaster will avoid Fading into the worst kind of breathless bodice-ripper!

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