Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26579-6
Fantasy Romance, 2014
Lord Barnabas Smith-Grenville, last seen valiantly but haplessly trying to locate his brother in Scarlet Devices, is an interesting hero because, for a spy, he’s not very good at it. Really, the poor thing always tries, but either circumstances or a lack of expertise, sometimes both, always ended up setting him back. Well, he’s the hero of Gilded Lily, and I have to give it to the author: it’d probably be tempting to “man” Barnabas up – just like how nerds, when they star in their romance, often ditch those glasses and rip off their shirt to reveal a six-pack of steel in romance novels – but Delphine Dryden actually keeps Barnabas pretty convincingly in character. He tries, he has his heart in the right place, and he certainly is earnest, and there is always a certain kind of charm in that little hero who thinks he could and tries twice as hard as everyone else.
There are several disjointed-seeming elements at play in Gilded Lily. Barnabas is looking for his MIA brother Phineas – who, incidentally, is every bit the standard romance novel action hero, heh – and Phineas was last known to be working for Rutherford Murcheson, spy master. Unfortunately, there are strong indications that Phineas has succumbed to opium addiction, probably even dabbling in dealing to supplement his habit. Meanwhile, fishermen are missing in the neighborhood, with reports of a “submersible machine” sighted in the waters. Rollo Furneval knows more than he is letting on, but good luck keeping him away from enjoying his elevated status as crime boss after the premature end of his predecessor’s career in Scarlet Devices. Oh, and Rutherford wants Barnabas to keep an eye on Frédérique, who prefers to hang up her ballroom dresses for… well, whatever it is mechanics wear in that time so that, as “Fred”, she can tinker with machines to her heart’s delight.
It’s pretty obvious that submarines are at the heart of the mystery of this story, and there is no prize for guessing what Gilded Lily is. Freddie and Barnabas are soon working together pretty well, despite their partnership having been founded on mutual blackmail, and they will learn that they may be the only ones who stop England from being overrun by her enemies.
The whole premise of Gilded Lily is intriguing, but the execution turns out be a big disappointment. First off, the romance is… well, let me put it this way: the author spends way more time developing the plot than the romance, and, as a result, when the characters say that they’re in love, I guess I’ll have to take their word for it as I have no idea how that happened. I know what these guys do, but I have no idea what they are thinking or feeling when it comes to the love thing. I certainly get that they work well together, but their romance seems to be something that happens just because this book is going to be marketed as a romance novel. It feels so perfunctory.
The shallowness of the characters also means that this story misses out on opportunities in creating emotional conflicts. Freddie is going against her father in this story, for example, and how does she feel about the whole thing? She may as well be planning a picnic, as I have no clue what she is thinking or feeling most of the time.
The mystery for a long time isn’t bad at all, which is why this book gets a generous three oogie rating at the end of the day. However, the characters remain rather one-dimensional, and it’s like watching a Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew doing their thing. The shallowness of these characters and their so-called romance come back to bite the author when Barnabas swallows completely a development involving Freddie when any halfway competent person would pause because something doesn’t feel completely right at that moment. Instead, he goes, oh, he never knows Freddie, how sad. Is he right? Because I hardly have a good peek into what happens in his head when it comes to Freddie and love, I have no idea. That particular plot development feels like something that happens just because… well, something has to happen.
Also, I can’t shake off my annoyance at how the entire plot seems to be constructed just to showcase a secondary character in a “Look at me! I bet you want to read my story!” spotlight. When the main characters could use a whole lot of character development, it can be quite aggravating to see this character showboating and sucking up all the oxygen in this story. Did the author get bored of her main characters halfway through this story?
At any rate, Gilded Lily is competently written, but it’s a better campy steampunk action adventure than a romance, and even so, the characters are too shallow to be memorable. It’s a shame, as some characters, especially Barnabas, look like a tall glass of water on paper. That the story ends up coming off like an excuse to hype a sequel bait only adds to this feeling of mine that Gilded Lily is quite the waste of time at the end of the day.