Kiss of Steel
by Bec McMaster
Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2012
Let me talk about the benefits of proper world-building in science fiction and fantasy.
So in case you were thinking I've gone all Canliterary, with my Humphreys and my Thuy, I shall now discuss my most recent read, which was Kiss of Steel by Australian paranormal romance author Bec McMaster. I'm going to be honest: I picked it almost as a joke, because - well, look at that cover. Right? What is Honoria even wearing. And I know that authors don't always (very rarely?) get a lot of say in their covers, and frankly this is not the worst of the romance covers out there (so very not) and it obviously did its job. I wanted something over-the-top and steampunkish. I downloaded the eBook. I started reading it.
And damned if it wasn't actually quite good.
Soapbox time: one of my biggest problems with fantasy or sci-fi (or in this case, steampunk) in the Romance genre in general is sloppy world-building. I've just recently become familiar with the term "wallpaper historical" to describe [some of my favourite] historical fiction and it is exactly appropriate. And if "wallpaper sff" isn't a term it should be - the trappings can be there, the magic and/or the spaceships - but a lot of the time the world-building in books that are Romance first and sff second is hasty and extremely cliched. This always kind of breaks my heart because I happen to really love my fantasy with a strong romantic component. But it has so rarely worked the other way for me that I've kind of given up.
The problem for me is that I am extremely familiar with the fantasy genre. I grew up with it. It's in my blood right there with my haemoglobin. So I know when an author is just wallpapering over their books with fantasy cliches - they may be well-intentioned, they may even have a true fantasy story in mind - but dammit, pay attention to your world. If you have a Chosen heroine and a banished berserker hero, I want to know why she was Chosen and what for, I want to know about berserker culture, and I for sure don't want an Evil Mage arch-bad-guy. That's been done, and better than most people can do it. Your characters need to be a product of their environment, not the other way around.
Steampunk, in my limited experience, can be a bit better at this - generally people who are writing steampunk are totally in love with their own worlds, fascinated by the ideas and the intersections of human stories and technology and history. Maybe it's too newly popular a genre to have spawned the same wealth of cliches that fantasy and science fiction have, forcing people to come up with their own ideas and explanations, not allowing them to use shorthand.
Whatever the reason, McMaster has done it well. She doesn't do everything well. There was a bit too much repetition - I don't need to be reminded, all the time, that Honoria grew up in the hallowed halls of the Echelon, or that Blade killed his own sister. I got it the first two or three times. Also I actually really wanted more of Honoria teaching Blade how to read - that particular plot contrivance vanished, never to be seen again, after the scene where it first appeared. There are times when things go on a bit longer than they should.
But the setting... McMaster's London is gritty, ugly, violent, and sometimes beautiful, and it makes sense. And Honoria and Blade and the rest of the characters make sense in the world. They've come out of it. This story wouldn't make sense anywhere else. And that, as much as anything else McMaster has done, makes this book worth the read.
Setting/world-building isn't everything, to be clear. McMaster also has a good handle on the English language and uses it to her advantage; the prose is clear, quick, and supports the wonderful descriptions; the characters are entertaining and consistent; the plot is dramatic and clever, if a bit packed.
The key here is that this book is a romance novel first and foremost. Even with the detail and depth of the world and the politics, this is essentially a book about two people finding each other, falling hard for each other, surmounting some critical obstacles, both internal and external (and the external ones come straight out of the world they live in), having some sex, and getting a happy ending. (Not uncomplicated happy. But happy.) Which means that it's got to be possible for someone out there to do the same thing with fantasy, too.
Honoria Todd and her two siblings have fallen on very hard times, since her scientist father was murdered and a price put on her head by the villainous but politically well-heeled Vickers, a duke and leader of one of the seven ruling houses. Vickers and all the other rulers of London are blue bloods - humans who have been infected with the craving virus. Yes, it makes them drink blood to survive, heal quickly, have incredible strength and agility. It also happens that Blade, the Devil of Whitechapel, ruler of the most powerful gang in the city outside the city, is a rogue blue blood - he was pulled out of the gutter, infected, and enslaved. But Blade escaped. He knows who Honoria is, and he's going to use her to get at Vickers; she needs his protection to survive in the extremely dangerous slums. Cue the romantic tension as Blade discovers Honoria is more than she appears on the surface, and Honoria discovers that Blade isn't like the other blue bloods she's known.
Blue bloods are not vampires, exactly - vampires are blue bloods whose virus has finally run its course, who no longer have control over their urges, who hate sunlight. They are extremely dangerous predators. And when a blue blood is to the point where he's (they're all men, because of Victorian ideas of female fragility) about to start turning vampire (determined by blood tests) he's beheaded. That's always going to be the end game for a blue blood, eventually. And once infected, there is no cure.
What McMaster has done here is taken an idea - what if England was ruled by "vampires" - and spent a lot of time figuring out what the logical conclusions would be. Of course Victorian London would be home to "draining factories" where people go to pay their blood tax. (Of course taxes would be paid in literal blood.) Of course people who couldn't afford to eat would sell their blood to unscrupulous Drainers. Of course there would be roving gangs of Slashers, who pick the impoverished off the streets of the slums - or out of their own homes - at night and kill them, draining them of blood entirely for sale to the factories. Who of course wouldn't condone that sort of thing, but would pay for it quietly anyway.
And it's all like this - all the little details thought out. Everything comes from somewhere, and everything makes sense. And that means the characters make sense, and the story makes sense, and since it's written well and the plot is interesting and the characters have depth - well, there you have it. A read I enjoyed far more than I thought I would, for more reasons than I expected to.