A Reflection of Shadows (The Elemental Web Tales #3) by Anne Renwick

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Shunned for her odd eyes and an unnerving habit of slipping into shadows, Lady Colleen Stewart refuses to be caged–should she decide to marry, it’ll be for love and to a man of her choice. After all, she’d rather be racing over rooftops than waltzing across ballroom floors. So when the only man to ever tempt her heart invites her on a covert mission, she leaps into danger.

Nicholas Torrington, Queen’s agent, is running out of time. While work has him chasing his tail, his sister grows increasingly ill, and Colleen, the woman he would make his bride, has acquired another, determined suitor. To coax his favorite thief back into his arms, he’ll break every rule and lead her through the underbelly of London on a hunt for a mad scientist and a cure for his sister.

But the discovery of a burned-out laboratory provides more questions than answers, and they find themselves caught in a deadly game where they have become the prey. Surviving the ambitions of their pursuers will bring everything into sharp focus as they risk their very lives.

Rating: B-

A Reflection of Shadows is the third (and latest) book in Anne Renwick’s  Elemental Web Chronicles – part of her steampunk series set in an alternate Victorian London.  Each of the books features a different central couple and self-contained plot, and are thus designed to work as standalones; however, coming late to the party did have an effect on my reading experience,  as I found myself a little lost to start with.  With six books and a number of novellas and short stories set in this world already published, I’m guessing most of the worldbuilding was done in earlier books; had I read some of those, I may have got up to speed more quickly. But it’s often the reviewer’s lot to review series books out of order, so all I can do in this instance is say that if you like the sound of this one, you should probably pick up some of the earlier books in the series first.

Lady Colleen Stewart is just three days away from her twenty-fifth birthday, which will see her come into her inheritance of Craigieburn in Scotland, and into the fortune that goes with it.  After her father’s death, her uncle, Lord Maynard, became her guardian, and she can’t wait to finally be free of him and of London – although she’ll miss her aunt Isabella, who is expecting her first child.  While Colleen and her uncle don’t get along, he has at least never put any pressure on her to marry – until now, when he seems desperate to ensure her marriage to one Mr. Glover (whom Colleen had once – stupidly, she now acknowledges – taken as a lover).  Colleen refuses in no uncertain terms; not only does she not want to marry Glover, she resents the attempt to force her into marriage.  Besides, she is strongly attracted to Queen’s Agent Nicholas Torrington and has just agreed to allow him to court her.

Nicholas is a scientist – a cardiophysiologist – as well as a Queen’s Agent, and is desperate to find a treatment for his sister, whose heart is seriously damaged and could give out any day.  He’s heard whispers of a scientist who has invented some sort of electrical device (akin to a pacemaker from the sound of it) that could save Anna – and learning the man is obsessed with the concept of transmutation gives Nick the opportunity to combine his current investigation into the operation of a shadowy organisation dabbling in sorcery with his search for the device.

It also affords him an unusual way to court his lady. Knowing of Colleen’s nocturnal activities as an operative for Witherspoon and Associates – a company that handles ‘private matters’ with discretion – her love of a challenge, her ability to move swiftly through London’s shadows and her keen night vision, Nick asks for her help in searching Dr. Farquhar’s laboratory – but their plans are thwarted when they arrive to find the house on fire – and Farquhar missing.

With Nick on the trail of an underground organisation believed to be experimenting on humans in the attempt to prove the existence of shifters, his search for a cure for his sister, and Colleen becoming unwittingly entangled in her uncle’s nefarious dealings, there’s quite a lot going on in this novel, but Ms. Renwick cleverly weaves her plot-threads together, arriving at the climax of the story to expose a truly despicable scheme.  The villain is a really nasty piece of work, and the author creates a strong sense of peril as Colleen and Nick have to use all their ingenuity and determination in order to keep themselves alive and try to find a way out of a seemlngly hopeless situation.  (And there are a few moments that are not for the squeamish!)  I found myself racing through the second half of the book, as the plot twists and pacing kicked up – although the way things were resolved was something of an anticlimax.

A Reflection of Shadows was an entertaining read with a well-constructed plot, a pair of engaging protagonists and a handful of nicely-drawn secondary characters.  I liked Nick and Colleen, who clearly knew and understood one another well and has the good sense to admit they’d met their match in each other.  But on the downside, I felt as though the romantic and character development must have happened in the previous books in the series, because  their relationship here is pretty much a done deal, so what we get is an established couple working together to bring down the bad guys – which is fine; they’re well-matched and work together well.  But it’s not what I was expecting.

The writing is strong and Ms. Renwick can clearly create likeable characters and craft an intriguing plot, but my disappointment in the romance means I can only award the novel a qualified recommendation.  That said, I liked enough about it to be interested in reading more of the author’s work, so I may go back and pick up some of the earlier books in the series at some point.

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