The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer

Genre: YA Steampunk
Secondary genre: Alternate history, romance
Series: The Inventor’s Secret vol. 1

I was so excited when I picked this book up. A steampunk novel with a female main character, set in an alternate America in which we lost the Revolution. Alas, I can tell you now that it did not live up to my expectations.

I found Charlotte, the main character, to be spoiled and bland. She lives with a group of other youngsters in a series of caves; their parents sent them away to protect them from “The Empire,” which has forced the descendants of the Patriots into slavery. By sending their children away, they hope they can grow up free and fight for the rebellion.

Okay, I thought. It’s a flimsy excuse, but I won’t poke at it too hard. I kept reading.

The oldest members of their little enclave decide to leave when a strange boy, Grim shows up in their midst. They must get to the bottom of his mysterious appearance, and since he doesn’t remember anything, they have to do it for him.

My suspension of disbelief started to fray a bit here, since they were leaving an 11 or 12 year old in charge of an unknown number of children, but okay.

I finally lost my sense of disbelief wholly when they arrive at the floating city of New York…which is kept aloft by (presumably) steam power, and is made of…metal and stone? Um…

Charlotte is meant to be a “strong female character.” We know this because she is rude, carries a gun, and can’t keep her mouth shut. But there are at least three points in the book where she stands around, bored, waiting for someone to give her orders. She has no agency of her own and makes no decisions for herself, even at the end of the book when she is left in charge of the catacombs while the other teens go off on their first missions.

Adding to the let down, the author tried to shoehorn in diversity by mentioning in the last quarter of the book that a character (who has been there effectively since page one) is possibly black? It’s not stated in so many words, but is heavily implied.

By the end of the book I was so frustrated and just done that I have already decided not to continue with the series, despite a cliffhanger ending. The romance subplot is minor at best, and I really hated Charlotte’s love interest because of how hot and cold he ran; and when he was showing interest, he acted extremely entitled about it, as though Charlotte owed him her love. I spent the bulk of the book thinking about how I would re-write it to make it better.

If you’re looking for steampunk romance with diverse characters and floating cities, Gail Carriger does it better.

Strange and Ever After by Susan Denard

Genre: YA fantasy/sci-fi
Secondary genre: historical romance
Format: audio
Series: Something Strange and Deadly vol. 3
CW: violence
Rep: Chinese, mixed race/Creole
Rating: planchet-3

As much as I loved the first book, I found that the sequels were a little disappointing on several fronts, no only in some of the attempts at representation, but just in general terms of enjoying the story. I disliked the way the characters behaved in some aspects, and how they were unwilling to bend or show understanding for each other. I was angry at a specific character died, even though I saw it coming, and the end of the book felt…off. In a way it was too tidy, but in another way it just didn’t fit and almost seemed to leave lose ends.

The greatest problem I had, however, was the pacing. The book begins with a fair amount of action, to the point that I was shocked to look at my phone and see I was only a third of the way through the book, as the sequence felt more like a climax than part of the rising action.

It’s a shame, because I was completely obsessed with the first book, and series finale just kind of let me down. I don’t want to call it a bad book, because it isn’t. It just left me feeling a bit…unmoved, through most of it. The last quarter of the book was, by far, the best part of it, but it still didn’t match the emotional impact of Something Strange and Deadly.

A Darkness Strange and Lovely by Susan Denard

Genre: Fantasy
Secondary genre: historical mystery
Format read: hard copy
Series: Something Strange and Deadly vol 2
Positive rep: biracial, epilepsy
Rating: planchet-4

I loved the first book in this series, and immediately ordered the second when I finished it.

It then sat on my shelf for a year, but who’s counting?

I don’t want to give away too much plot since this is the second book in a series, but the story starts out with our heroine, Eleanor, at her lowest point. A new amputee, she’s still struggling to adjust. In addition, her mother has been committed to an insane asylum, and she’s had to sell just about everything left in the family home to pay the bills. Even worse, she’s been shunned by society and her best friend.

And that’s before a homicidal maniac and a pack of hell hounds come after her. With her friends, the Spirit Hunters, across the pond in Paris, her only hope might be a mysterious young man named Oliver–who also makes no bones about the fact that he’s a demon. If she wants to survive long enough to get help, Eleanor will literally have to choose the lesser of several evils.

It was so great to be back in this world, but there were a few things that kept me from giving it five stars. For starters, based on the first few chapters, it looks like we’re going to get some great disability rep and fat rep. But then Eleanor uses magic to get her amputated hand back, and we find out the only reason she’s considered fat is because she’s stopped wearing a corset.

I love the characters and the way the plot kept me guessing. It was also so hard to tell who was right and who was wrong as the characters question the nature of what, exactly, makes someone evil.

While it wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped, I will certainly be looking up the third and final book sometime soon.

The Spark by Leanna Renee Hieber

Genre: Fantasy
Secondary genre: historical mystery
Format read: hard copy
Series: The Eterna Files vol .5
Positive rep: biracial, epilepsy
Rating: planchet-3

I’m sorry to say that this prequel novella did not live up to my expectations.

While I love The Eterna Files, after reading many of Hieber’s work (all of it, pretty much) I can safely say that her style is definitely suited more to longer works, as for me anything shorter than 300 pages has come out rather flat.

This short little book tells the story of one of the main characters in Eterna, Clarameeting her love interest, Louis–and then losing him, an even that–ahem–sparks the beginning of the series.

It’s a fluffy little meet-cute, but I just feel like it needed more. More of the falling in love, more of them together.

I wanted to see more of how Louis handles Clara’s seizures and her ability to see ghosts, more of their developing romance. I wanted more insight into their thoughts and more plot. I wanted to see more of Louis’s work at combining science with voodoo mysteries. While it still would have been a rather short book, I feel like this needed expanded to double or even triple the length.

It’s a fun read, but not really necessary for the rest of the series.

The Spectral City by Leanna Renee Hieber

Genre: Fantasy
Secondary genre: historical mystery
Format read: hard copy
Series: The Spectral City vol 1
Positive rep: LGBTQIA, addiction recovery
Rating: planchet-3

New York City is changing. As the dawn of the 20th century draws nearer, government and police are being forced to change the way they work, utilizing new technology and old spirits.

Eve Denbury, daughter of Lord and Lady Denbury and a life-long New Yorker, has been blessed–or cursed–with her mother’s ability to see spirits. Except for Eve, it’s not just a feeling–the ghosts are all around her, drawn to her energy. It is through what they over hear and communicate to her that she becomes an integral part of the city’s police force, under the direction of governor Theodore Roosevelt himself.

Eve and her carefully selected team of female psychics are dedicated to giving a voice to the voiceless, be they the minorities, disenfranchised women and children, or the deceased of the city.

But almost immediately things start to go wrong for the “Ghost Precinct.” One of their ghosts mysteriously goes missing. Then threats from a powerful family bring Roosevelt to their offices for damage control. Their primary liaison to the regular police gets replaced without warning, and then a series of mysterious thefts spring up around the city, all tied to a missing little girl.

Young Eve will have to not just keep herself together, but her team, too, if she wants to solve the mysteries and save the life of New York’s most recent missing person.

I wanted to love this book so much. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages, since Leanna is a dear friend of mine. Unfortunately, it just didn’t hit the mark.

The story was good, but my main complaints lay with the pacing, which could be choppy at times. This could have been vastly improved if not for Eve’s inner monologues.

Leanna is dedicated to writing inclusive gaslamp fantasy, and I love the way she brings in other cultures and identities, making them feel natural in most of her work (as they should be). But Eve spent more time thinking about how she wanted to make her time inclusive, and why does racism exist, and why does sexism exist, all without really forming any solid answers. I just wanted a little less thought and a lot more action from her.

I also wanted more from her team members, who felt somewhat two dimensional. It was very hard to keep the broad cast of characters straight, even just remembering who was alive and who was a ghost.

I will continue reading the series, so hopefully these issues will be corrected in later volumes.