Enemies. Allies. Lovers.
When her beloved father was assassinated, Lady Aramina swore revenge. The man responsible is well beyond her grasp, but his dangerously seductive heir, Leo Barrons, is fair game. When Mina obtains evidence proving that Leo is illegitimate, she has the means to destroy both the killer and his son, a man who troubles her heart and tempts her body.
A woman of mystery, Mina’s long driven Leo crazy with glimpses of a fiery passion that lurks beneath her icy veneer. He knows she’s hiding something, and he’s determined to unravel her layer by silken layer. He just doesn’t expect the beautiful liar to be the key to overthrowing the corrupt prince consort… or to saving his own carefully walled-off heart.
I’m not sure why I picked up this, the last in the author’s London Steampunk series without having read any of the others, other than that I’ve been meaning to give her books a try for a while and when I saw this on NetGalley, I thought “why not?”
Bec McMaster has created a complex world, full of intrigue and danger, and an intricate social hierarchy which is teetering on the brink. It took me a little while to work out what was what, but she has skilfully built in enough information for a new reader to be able to pick up the basics without too much trouble and without impeding the flow of the story. I think I would have liked to have read the others first – and intend to go back to them – but it’s just about possible to read this as a standalone, although I probably missed some of the subtler nuances.
In this version of Victorian London, steam and clockwork are powering technological advances, and the ruling classes are “blue-bloods”, who have superhuman strength, the ability to heal quickly and recover from almost anything – and who are, as a result, hard to kill. Only the highest born are selected to become blue-bloods, infected with the craving virus as part of a ritual and needing a regular supply of blood in order to survive. (It sounds like vampirism, but in this world, a vampire is a blue-blood coming to the end of their lives, one who loses their humanity and becomes a mindless killer). The country is ruled by the Echelon, the council of blue-blood dukes and the queen and prince-consort. But the queen is little more than a puppet, kept docile by the regular administration of drugs and her husband’s beatings, and the prince consort is the de facto ruler, a ruthless man who is steadily eliminating all opposition. The “normal” humans have been chafing against the harsh rule imposed upon them and punitive blood-taxes, leading to the rise of a humanist movement that is waiting for the moment to instigate rebellion.
Lord Leo Barrons is the son of the Duke of Caine, and has taken his father’s place on the Echelon due to the duke’s illness. But Leo is living a lie – he’s the duke’s acknowledged heir, but Caine is not his biological father – and he has long struggled to find his place in the world, feeling he doesn’t quite fit in among the ruling classes, and having to hide his humanist sympathies. But when the truth of his birth is unexpectedly revealed, he is accused of treason and has to run for his life – taking with him as a hostage Lady Aramina Duvall, the Duchess of Casavian who is one of only two female blue-bloods and a close friend of Queen Alexia. The only people Leo can turn to are his siblings and their spouses, who operate from London’s rookeries and who are also heavily involved in the upcoming rebellion.
Leo and Aramina – Mina – have a history going back years. She holds Leo and his father responsible for the slow, painful death of her father and wants her revenge – but she’s also fighting an attraction to Leo that she wants to pretend doesn’t exist. She’s a great character – a strong, independent woman in what is very much a man’s world, a woman who wields a great deal of power and influence but who is walking a political tightrope, trying to help the queen and preserve her appearance of loyalty to the Echelon while at the same time working behind the scenes to bring about its downfall.
Leo and Mina have both appeared in previous books, and from reading the author’s notes, I know that his is the story readers have been waiting for. He’s been deeply attracted to Mina for years, but his attitude towards her tends towards the light-hearted and flirtatious; he’s trying to show her he cares for her but without the risk of showing her too much. But deep down, he longs for the kind of contentment his sisters have in their relationships, he wants someone to belong to and who belongs to him, and his heart is set on Mina. His kindness towards her keeps Mina off-balance, causing her to question everything she’s ever believed about him, but she’s become so used to protecting herself from everyone and everything around her, to walling off her emotions and focusing on her cause that she can’t quite bring herself to take that final step and trust him, even when it appears they might actually be working towards the same end.
Together, they’re an explosive combination. They strike sparks off each other all the time, and have scorching chemistry in the romance department; and as a working team, they’re fantastic, too. One of the really admirable things about Leo is the way he trusts Mina to be able to do what needs to be done. Even when their backs are against the wall and everything in him is crying out to go to her and protect her, he knows she’s capable of getting the job done and lets her do it. Their romance is passionate and sexy, as Mina’s Ice Maiden persona finally melts under Leo’s determined pursuit. Along the way, they forge a deep emotional connection as well, discovering that perhaps they have more in common than either of them had ever thought possible. My one issue with their relationship is that while Leo put himself out there time after time and proves himself worthy of trust, Mina keeps holding back and refusing to take that final step and let herself believe in him, which gets a little frustrating, especially in the later stages of the book.
Of Silk and Steam is a fast-paced, action-packed read, full of political intrigue and unexpected plot twists, culminating in a revolution and a nail-biting showdown. Ms McMaster has done a splendid job building her Steampunk vision of London, and the writing and characterisation is very strong all round. I’m definitely going back to the beginning to read the other books in the series, and will be very interested to see what Ms McMaster turns her hand to next.