The Girl in the Steel Corset
Harlequin Teen (2011)
Urban Fantasy / Young Adult / Weird Attempt at Steampunk
Available from Amazon here
Includes (mostly) vague out-of-context spoilers
I am so conflicted about this book. I’m not one to put a book down in the middle and never pick it back up. I always like to feel really bad books can get better if only given the opportunity. Maybe there will be redeeming qualities. Maybe it will get so bad that it’s funny. Anything! But The Girl in the Steel Corset nearly lost me with the first paragraph on page 26.
Almost twenty years ago, his parents had taken it upon themselves to continue the work started by his grandfather, the fourteenth Duke of Greythorne, and journeyed to the center of the earth. There they discovered the Cradle of Life – the place where creation began. What they’d found there had been astounding, but would never see the light of day, at least not in the foreseeable future. The world wasn’t ready for it. Helena and Edward King had dedicated their lives to Crown and country, and they’d been killed because of it.
Did anyone else just get really bad Tomb Raider 2 flashbacks? Or Indiana Jones 4 shudders? Or just rolled their eyes so hard they are now permanently stuck in the back of their heads? Ignoring the incredibly cliché The world wasn’t ready for it that nearly caused me to throw the book across the room in a crowded public library, would anyone have blamed me for walking away from a book based around something found in THE CRADLE OF LIFE?!
Calming breaths. Wow, okay, I’m okay.
That paragraph probably wouldn’t have hit my DO NOT WANT button quite so heavily if the preceding 25 pages hadn’t left me slack jawed at the epic badness of the characters and the attempted steampunk-ish elements in a way that made me want to cry. Steampunk is my soft spot. Robots, dirigibles, ladies with hidden stun guns underneath their layers of puffy skirts, perpetual motion machines, gears and springs and steam, lots of steam, in a world otherwise very much like what actually might have existed at the time… I am all over that. Which is why I kept reading. It’s called The Steampunk Chronicles for pete’s sake. There must be something in here for me!
Let’s start from the beginning. This book has one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen on a YA book in quite some time. The blurb said the bad guy was named The Machinist. Automotons are committing crimes. There’s some sort of group of people who are going to save the day with their gizmos and possible supernatural powers! What could go wrong?
Had I read the acknowledgements in the back first, I might have gone in a little more prepared by the anachronisms, the “steampunk” elements that were just early inventions of real gadgets, the cliché-ness of it all. In the acknowledgements, Kady Cross says she wanted to create a cross between The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the X-Men. I got the X-Men vibe early on, which could have worked if the main male character – Griffin King – wasn’t a) 18 years old, b) a weird amalgamation of Professor Xavier and every heroic, misunderstood love interest in recent YA books, c) incredibly rich and a Duke so people never ask him questions, and d) a complete Marty Stu. He has an instinct that he must know this girl that he HIT WITH HIS MOTORCYLCE, sorry, velocycle. He just knows that this girl must be in his life and he must understand her and… blah blah blah. Oh yes, and his parents were murdered when he was younger and now he fights crime, putting bad guys away, until he can find the man responsible for their death.
Yeah, guys, that’s right, he’s Batman.
He also carries around this little gadget that is essentially a text message machine. In 1897. Invented by a 16-year-old Irish girl, who you are constantly reminded has “ropey” red hair. I’m not sure if that particular adjective is meant to conjure up an image of a dread headed tiny little Irish moppet, but that’s what it did. And she’s brilliant and can talk to machines and anything that anyone could ever need, she can make it! Flashlights? Check. A robotic cat that moves just like a real cat? Check. The Polaroid picture? Yep, that too. A robotic heart that can keep a human man alive? Yep, and that. A mysterious machine that can use the realm of the dead to search for documentation like it’s the frakking Internet? Of course. And did I mention that she’s a lower class Irish girl who is 16? Yeah.
Then of course you have the underground crimelord who is actually a genuinely nice guy that puts on a show for respect, who competes for the love of the main female, Finley, who can’t choose between him and the rich, charming baby Professor Xavier sorry, Griffin. Oh yes, and the main female has never, ever had any friends before because girls just don’t seem to like her.
Finley has a problem – she has a dark side that takes over when she’s scared or in harm. This dark side is epically strong and vicious and heals miraculously and gets her into trouble. She’s the daughter of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (seriously, they say her father was the inspiration for the story), and baby Prof. X Griffin has to figure out how to combine the two parts of her personality so she can join his team of X-Men misfits who are all amazing at everything. As his new charge, Mary Sue Finley runs around in corsets and knickers that sound like leather hot pants with ankle-length coats that probably billow mysteriously in breezes that don’t exist and… it’s 1897.
Can you see how I might be inclined to throw this book across a crowded library?
It was just… too much. Too much using “Steampunk elements” to avoid having to creatively create something that didn’t exist in 1897. Too much unnecessary use of adjectives, physical descriptions of characters you already know, and excessive details about how they like their coffee. Too much modern day set urban fantasy cliché. Too much!
And the worst part is that somewhere around page 200, I started to like it a little bit. The details of the world took a backseat to the action of the plot, which wasn’t too terribly bad. It was a nice rollicking adventure story, sort of heist-y even though they were the good guys. Most of the time the plot made sense and things connected. And there were robots and guys that were half robots and robots trying to kill people. Robots!
By then, I accepted that every character was going to be a Mary Sue/Marty Stu, both girls would find themselves in a love triangle, and that all the boys would be terribly sweet and sensitive and strong and superheroic, running into danger and doing things to save their friends despite the harm it might cause to themselves without a second though. And then there was Jack Dandy, the underworld criminal with a heart of gold that never actually did anything to make you think he was a criminal. I liked him. He should have been in it more. He was the only character who acted his age (somewhere around 21). You know, if these characters were all about five years older, I might have been able to buy in a lot earlier. I think it was the 16-18 year old age range that really hurt my ability to get into these characters. I mean, a 16-year-old Irish servant girl with dreadlocks built the frakkin’ Internet in 1897! Had she been in her early twenties (and not been described to sound like she had dreadlocks), I might have bought it a tiny bit more, though it still would have been beyond ridiculous.
I really, really wanted to love this from the get go, but I just… couldn’t, not even as a guilty pleasure. It’s a fast read and, if you’re not easily jerked out of a story by sudden crazy details that seem incredibly out of character and don’t mind cliché on top of cliché on top of a pile of Mary Sues and Marty Stus, you might even come out the other end liking it.
And, if you’re like me, baby Professor X Griffin is written in a manner that, in my head, he looked like James McAvoy, which is never a bad thing.
BLATANT SPOILER BELOW
Oh, and did I mention that the ultimate automaton that the Machinist was creating was a Nestene version of Queen Victoria? You know, those aliens from Doctor Who that take over store mannequins and somehow puts guns into their hands? Yeah, one of those.
Oh dear god, Heartless can’t come out fast enough… Hurry, Gail Carriger, get this bad taste out of my head!
a whole lot of WTF, cliché characters and plot, but could be a nice guilty pleasure if you can ignore all that and focus on the robots and Jack Dandy