Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26577-2
Fantasy Romance, 2013
Prior to coming up with the Steam and Seduction series, Delphine Dryden wrote contemporary stories with sexy nerd heroes. Well, that’s what I’m told anyway. She still presents a nerd hero in Gossamer Wing, the first book in this steampunk historical series, pairing Dexter Chen Hardison with Charlotte Moncrieffe, secret agent wannabe and pilot of the stealth dirigible that is also the title of this book.
In this steampunk setting, England has a firm hold over the American Dominions – just like basically every other romantic steampunk setting, come to think of it – while trying to show France who the bigger boss is. Yes, it’s like every other steampunk story I come across, definitely. Charlotte’s father is one of the English aristocrats that have set up base in America – New York Dominion in this instance – but steampunk or no, noblemen still like to meddle in spy stuff, and the man is no different.
Charlotte’s husband was her father’s apprentice, and that man was killed during their honeymoon. She now burns with vengeance, wanting to be the best agent ever to… er, do something, I guess. Her father believes that she is just not ready for the task, so when Charlotte insists on piloting Gossamer Wing into enemy territory to locate some documents her husband gave his life for, the man insists that she fake-marry another nobleman so that she has a good cover for going to France. This is where our hero comes in. Dexter has been creating custom gadgets and equipment for Charlotte for a while now, and he’s already half in love with her from reading all her letters to him. Apparently purchase orders are so stimulating when you’re a nerd. When she turns out to be an icy blonde who looks just like Carrie Underwood, if the cover art is anything to go by, every body part of his is more than happy to play the fake hubby for the spy babe.
Dexter is a pretty decent hero, although he’s quite flat because the author seems to expect that just pegging him as a nerd and describing him as a gentle bear of a man – yes, he’s a big guy, so I have no idea who the CW TV show reject dude on the cover is supposed to be – are enough when it comes to character development. Still, he’s sweet, and that’s not bad at all.
My bigger problem here is Charlotte being a spy. Her father’s right – she’s just not ready to be one. And yet, the author seems to labor under the assumptions that the very traits that make Charlotte a cringe-inducing wannabe actually make her a capable and admirable spy. Let’s start with how Dexter, an inexperienced newbie when it comes to spy stuff, constantly marveling how anyone only has to take a look at Charlotte when she’s in serious mode to know right away that she’s a secret agent type of person. Charlotte is undercover, so why is this supposed to be a good thing? The fact that Charlotte is often “flabbergasted” when faced with new things or concepts, while Dexter takes everything in like a sanguine and jovial guru also make Charlotte look like the amateur in this couple when it’s the other way around. This seems suspiciously like the author setting up the hero to be amazing even it means making the heroine look like a fool in the process.
Charlotte’s thought process is also weird for a spy. She judges Dexter pretty severely for bringing up sex because, as she puts it, “he risked them both by thinking he was safe to spend a single thought on dalliance”. That’s a big overreaction to Dexter’s playful banter. Besides, they are supposed to be married. I’d think some naughty banter now and then would have strengthened the deception. The author has Charlotte conforming to the frigid ice queen formula – a pretty common trope – but in this instance, with a story where Charlotte is supposed to be a capable spy type, that personality makes Charlotte look increasingly addled as she keeps going on and on like that. How is this rigid and inflexible creature supposed to do spy stuff again?
The author’s efforts to show that Charlotte is a smart thinker also tend to fall flat.
“But if he’s meeting with Gendreau,” Charlotte surmised, “he’s either playing Gendreau for the Égalité government, or playing the current government for the old regime.”
Gendreau is with the old regime, while the current government is the Égalité. Therefore, her brilliant conclusion above is akin to me saying, “But if there are dark clouds over the horizon, either it will rain and we’ll get wet, or it won’t rain and we’ll stay dry.” Sheer genius!
Oh, and of all the times Charlotte insists that they should be professional and cool, the one time she has to face the pressure, she starts being the most melodramatic creature in the house. Mission? Objectives? The greater good? No, she must save the man she loves, and she will risk everything!
And don’t get me started on how the author also makes Charlotte very claustrophobic and has a tendency to get violent motion sickness.
It’s nice that Charlotte overcomes her claustrophobia for the grand finale, but she’s just like a some twit who is determined to be a surgeon even if she gets violently sick at the sight of blood and scalpels. I’m so happy that this surgeon gets her happy ending, but if I happen to be in need of surgery, that creature has better not even look at me. It’s the same here. Good for Charlotte, overcoming her many issues to become a happy girlfriend for a hot nerd, but she’d have saved everyone a lot of trouble if she had remained content doing something more appropriate for her skill level, like scooping ice cream for kids by the sidewalk.