The Girl in the Steel Corset

Within the acknowledgments at the end of her book, Kady Cross describes her original desire was to write The Girl in the Steel Corset as "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets teen X-Men." There's really no better way to describe this novel than that -- for Kady Cross did obviously want to write that novel. Her talent seems to rest in creating an interesting world and atmosphere where those kinds of elements can come together. The problem, though, is that a great number of other things seemed to fall by the wayside in order to craft such a world, including a clear narrative, character investment, and a large amount of tension within the story arc.

Steampunk and packed with adventure, The Girl in the Steel Corset opens upon a young serving maid named Finley Jayne who believes she's struggling with a darker side within, a side that unleashes when she's frightened or angry. Incidentally, we're treated to a display of this when the master's son decides he'd like to take advantage of the new serving girl, and he winds up beaten unconscious. As Finley is aware that she'll be lucky if she only winds up dismissed from her position and not arrested, the voice in her head offers some solid advice -- flee before either can happen. Dashing into the street as she escapes, Finley is nearly run down -- conveniently, by the only young man in all of London who can truly help her. Within his circle of friends, she finds even more frightening prospects than dealing with her own internal struggles -- the possibility of understanding, a useful place, and true friends.

The Girl in the Steel Corset gets major points based on cover and book design alone -- I loved the dips and curls of the script combined with the cogs on chapter pages and the lush cover is quite vibrant. My experience with steampunk literature is rather limited (aka Gordon Dahlquist and Gail Carriger), so perhaps staunch supporters of the genre would be able to really enjoy the detail that Cross goes in to. The world that Cross paints has the benefit of luxury (as one of the main characters and leader of the group, Griffin King, is a wealthy young Duke) being contrasted with the gritty world outside. There are still all kinds of crazy mechanical contraptions (including a whole lot of robots) and fashions that work in a good deal of body piercings. Introducing a unique element (or at least making it something *I* haven't yet seen before), Cross features a new form of ore that seems to function as a blended mechanical/organic composite -- and keeping this substance away from those who would use its powers for evil will obviously occupy a lot of time in the series... well, that and trying to figure out just how it works and how it has affected those who come in contact with it. Oh, and there's also this thing called the aether, which seems to encompass all living livings -- and dead ones, as it seems spirits exist in the aether. Are you smirking yet? I'll admit, I smirked quite often, and yet I think steampunk enthusiasts are willing to accept a lot of crazy things for the sake of fun, even if this seemed more sci-fi at times.

I would try to explain the plotline in greater detail, but truth be told, I still haven't managed to shake the feeling that I was tossed into a series midway through, and so I find it hard to summarize in anything vaguely resembling a linear trajectory. Even when you know the book says "Steampunk Chronicles #1," I still felt the compulsive need to do some internet research and see if there weren't, perhaps, other series somehow linked to this one... and even when I came up with nothing under this same author name, I still remain somewhat unconvinced that there isn't a manuscript floating around out there with earlier story installments for these characters. Without proof of that, though, my only explanation is that Cross seeks to put the reader on par with Finley, who is entering a group of friends rather late in the game, as they have a whole history of collaboration to their credit. There are, however, much better ways to suggest this than leaving your reader with the near-constant distracting feeling that she's missing something. It's downright frustrating to have lots of complications right at the start and a large cast of characters that obviously have convoluted emotions towards each other. The romantic tangles seemed to be more fitting for a second or third series installment, as triangles seemed already in place, and the characters themselves were never developed enough to the point where I felt like I sincerely cared for them. The story seemed to expect I would care about the good guys simply because I was told to (though some effort is put in to painting a "bad guy" as still being interesting and alluring). Finley herself is rather lacking in personality -- which almost seems hard to imagine, given that she's supposed to have two distinctly different sides, so you'd think at least one would jump out at you. Two strong male characters are drawn to her and yet I see no reason for them to feel this pull. And the villain? Well, I kept picturing "The Machinist" as Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget and that's just not a good sign. His motivations (once we get to know them) seem flimsy and evil-villainy where one might otherwise hope for some nuance or at least solid reasoning.

In the end, I was rather disappointed in The Girl in the Steel Corset as a trailblazer for YA steampunk. (The only thing that seemed to make it YA appeared to be the ages of the main characters and the PG romance. There are romantic storylines in play, but nothing that ever takes us beyond an impassioned kiss.) Even the title ultimately proved misleading, as the steel corset really isn't an integral element to the story, beyond it's not-so-subtle fusion of the time period's costume with industrial steel-work. Hopefully Cross will be able to hit her stride with later books and develop her writing abilities, but I'm rather doubtful that I'll pick up future installments in this series.

Please note that I received an advanced review copy of this novel courtesy of NetGalley for the purpose of review.

1 comment:

Hyacinth Marius said...

This was a Harlequin Teen book. I thought it was very well written. I've read a lot of Steampunk stories and this ratied right at the top of most I've read. I've noticed some people reviewing the book were put off because of the machines. Every Steampunk I've read has had machines in the story. I believe that is what makes it Steampunk. Anyway, I'd recommend this book to anyone who appreciates Steampunk. I won't go into the story because other people here have done that. Very well done.
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