Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn’t help much that they barely tolerate each other, or that Bannon’s Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen.
In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs.
This is one complex world. Steam punk industrial revolution meets magic and dragons in a way that they all fit. Science and magic are oil and water to each other, but they both work. Not once did I think they were stretching things too far. Most of this book takes place in its version of London, but I can feel that there is a wider world out there just waiting to be explored. The London you explore extends from the slums to the royal throne room. And you meet characters from all walks of life.
Hands down my favorite aspect of this book was the characters. Bannon and Clare are both Sherlock Holmes in their own right. Clare is the more stereotypical Sherlock Holmes, using science and deduction, but Bannon in the magical equivalent. I started this book thinking she would be Watson with magic, and have never been happier to be wrong. They both have flawed pasts that make them mistrustful of others, including their closest allies. Catching the little hints dropped here and there about Bannon’s and Clare’s respective pasts and piecing together the implications was more fun than trying to solve the actual mystery. But I’m biased; I love a good damaged character, and these two have enough emotional baggage to make Freud weep tears of joy. The nice thing is that they know that they are flawed, have accepted that, and are determined to be successful and serve their country anyway no matter what anyone else thinks.
I warn you know, if you are not familiar with Victorian terms go find a good dictionary with definitions that go back that far before you start reading. If not, good luck to you my friend, you’ll still understand the bulk of the action, but you’ll have to ignore a lot of the descriptive terms. It doesn’t help that there are plenty of new terms (mentath, Shield) that are made up and unique to this series but sound like they might be Victorian. A glossary or a little exposition would have been nice. It feels a little like I jumped into a series several books in, where the meaning of words has already been established and the author assumes that I’m familiar with them by now. A little more explanation of the world and how it works would be lovely, but it didn’t ruin the book for me. For the most part chapters alternate between Bannon and Clare, but when they don’t their is no warning, so be prepared to spend the first couple sentences of each chapter without being sure who is speaking. You just have to hold on tight and muddle through the confusing bits until they start to make sense.
I admit, this book has its flaws, but despite them all I really enjoyed it. Emma Bannon’s acerbic wit and Archibald Clare’s ever-turning brain caught my attention and held it. I wish there had been a few more hints about what was going on in the main mystery so that the reader had a chance of figuring it out themselves. However, the hints have more to do with the character’s pasts, and thankfully those are even more intriguing than the main plot. So sleuths who like to solve the mystery before the book reveals it will still find something to sink their teeth into. Fans of the Parasol Protectorate series, who like the mystery elements, strong female character, and Victorian setting, should love this. However, if you want steam punk paranormal romance, I’d look elsewhere. There is a romance subplot, but it takes a distant back seat to the mystery.
3 out of 4 Throwing Stars