Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26578-9
Fantasy Romance, 2014
First it’s Carrie Underwood on the cover of Gossamer Wing, the first book in Delphine Dryden’s Steam and Seduction steampunk series, and now it’s Miley Cyrus posing on the cover with some knock-off from the bargain bin of Wilhelmina Models. Someone is paying the cover artist to make sure that the books have star power, I see. Does this mean Ariana Grande would be on the cover of the next book?
Scarlet Devices can stand alone quite well, I believe, given that the plot stands alone, there is minimal baggage from the previous book, and the world is a generic version of steampunk America that wouldn’t be too hard to follow.
Well, the world is more peaceful now after the events in Gossamer Wing. The couple of that book settled down into domesticity, and it’s time for Dexter’s cousin Eliza Hardison to get her story. She wants to follow the footsteps of her famous grandmother and make her mark in the world, but she isn’t having it easy. She isn’t taken seriously at the university – she gets heckled out of the lecture theater when she tries to present her paper at the start of the story – and even her good friend Matthew Pence, Dexter’s portégé and heir (at least until Dexter gets a son of his own to pass his title to), thinks of her as someone who has to be protected from the world at all costs. Is it because she’s a woman? Matthew would tell you it’s because she’s a woman and his desire for her heightens his protective instincts. And this is my eye roll, and it’s a big one.
Anyway, Eliza gets a chance to do something when she gets to replace Dexter’s pregnant wife in the American Dominion Sky and Steam Rally. Remember the very old cartoon series Wacky Races? The one where assorted cartoon characters from Hanna-Barbera go on a non-stop race throughout North America? It’s on YouTube, I’m sure, so look it up if you’re too young to know that cartoon. Well, the premise of this story is exactly like that. Win the race, for glory and hee-hee-hee, that kind of thing. Matthew takes part too, but as a fellow competitor. Can Eliza beat him and show the world that she’s the biggest wrecking ball in the land, and she won’t stop until she feels like it because this is her house? Or is she going to get schooled by Matthew and, if so, will she ever graduate? Naturally, someone decides to play the Dick Dastardly and Muttley role in this wacky race, so sabotages happen from day one. Drat, double drat, and triple drat!
Now, the one thing I like about this story – and one that may break the deal where other folks are concerned – is the comparatively lightweight romance and and angst content. The characters are who they are from the get go, the romance is a given, and things happen. I can shut off my brain and just go along for the ride. I like this because it’s nice for once to read something as fluffy and linear as this one after a few duds that tried to be all “emotional” and “deep” only to lay a square hard-boiled egg on my head. But if you want something deeper, meatier, more plot-heavy, this one may not be what you are looking for.
Matthew is pretty annoying in that his protective instincts can become overbearing to the point that I wonder why he doesn’t just chloroform the heroine, cover her head with a burqa of his favorite color, and drag her to a room in his attic where she’d be locked up and protected from the rest the world, forced to see and service him and only him. His behavior mellows a little as the story progresses, but I get this feeling that he’d always try to force his hand and keep Eliza’s wings clipped, and she’d eventually resent him for that. For this story, his behavior often forces the story to be less exciting than it would have been if Eliza had been allowed to let her hair down.
Unlike her mother, Eliza can back up her talk with her walk. She has the right attitude and the appropriate amount of bravado, so it’s a shame that the author has Matthew going, “No, no, that’s too dangerous, don’t touch!” all the time, even inserting contrived incidents to force Eliza to play along with that man. The poor lass never gets to shine in her own right, as her boyfriend is determined that she’d live forever in his shadow… for her own good, of course, because the world is such a cruel place to the fragile fairer sex. The author has some awareness of Matthew’s behavior, as she has Eliza occasionally telling Matthew that he’d not have behaved the way he does with her if she is a man. But always, he rationalizes his behavior as one he does out of love and respect for her. As I’ve said, I find this attitude annoying. Eliza shows far more determination to keep pushing and going than Matthew, so I wish she’s found someone who actually respects her for what she is and what she wants to be. It’s quite ironic, really, that we have a feminist heroine paired with a hero who’d love nothing more than to clip her wings. Or maybe not, as a cynical part of me would say.
Still, the story is pretty enjoyable in a superficial way. The villain blabs everything unnecessarily, and his actions are at times hammy and ridiculous, but then again, Wacky Races, so that’s okay. The scenery is nice, the pacing is decent, and the heroine is fine. The romance isn’t too memorable, but I’m entertained by the story, so Scarlet Devices is not too bad at the end of the day.
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