TBR Challenge: Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Nowhere Is Safe

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it’s the last safe haven as she hides from the Blue Blood aristocracy that rules London through power and fear.

Blade rules the rookeries – no one dares cross him. It’s been said he faced down the Echelon’s army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he’s been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She’s so…innocent. He doesn’t see her backbone of steel-or that she could be the very salvation he’s been seeking.

Rating: B+

Published in 2012, Kiss of Steel is Bec McMaster’s début novel and the first in her London Steampunk series.  Rather like Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London novels, the books in this series are set in a recognisable Victorian London, which enables the author to get right into the story without the need for extensive description, as the locations and references to things like the London Underground and the rookeries are already familiar.  She can then focus on initiating the reader into her vision of London as a grim, dangerous and divided city where the elite, quasi-vampires known as blue bloods rule and regard all other species – humans, mechs, verwulfen – as scum, useful only to them as menial workers, servants or thralls, slaves who provide a supply of fresh blood in exchange for protection. The blue bloods will stop at nothing to retain their power and influence, their superhuman strength and ability to self-heal making them virtually indestructible. But these abilities come at a price, as the virus to which they owe them – a virus they deliberately pass from generation to generation  – will eventually turn each blue blood into a fully-fledged vampire, a mindless, almost invincible killer; and to prevent that happening, anyone showing signs of entering the Fade (a pre-vampyric state) is summarily executed.

Ms. McMaster does a fabulous job of getting across all those facts – and many more – during the story as and when the reader needs them without resorting to static info-dumps which disrupt the flow.  The world she has created is a fascinating one that mirrors actual Victorian society in the huge divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, as well as putting a different twist on familiar paranormal tropes and setting the stage for the conflict between blue bloods and the other races that is going to run throughout the five full-length novels and two novellas that comprise the series.

Until the death of their scientist father six months ago, Honoria Todd and her younger siblings, Lena and Charlie, had lived under the protection of the Echelon, the ruling class formed of the highest aristocratic houses of the British Empire.  Artemus Todd was working to find a vaccine against the craving virus, principally to prevent the accidental infection of servants, thralls, women and anyone else the Echelon deemed unworthy. But Todd also had a hidden purpose; he theorised that if sufficient numbers of the uninfected aristocracy and their children could be inoculated against the craving virus, the blue bloods would eventually die out.  Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his experiments and Honoria and her siblings disappeared with his diary/notebook, infuriating Todd’s former patron, Lord Vickers, who has put a massive price on Honoria’s head.

The family has retreated to the one part of London that is more or less safe from the Echelon, the rookeries of Whitechapel, where Honoria changes her name and works as a finishing tutor at a local school.  Life is hard; she doesn’t make enough money to keep them warm and fed, but even worse, Charlie has been accidentally infected with the craving virus and the medicine needed to keep it at bay is extremely expensive.  Rogue blue bloods – anyone infected unintentionally or deemed unworthy – are not tolerated by the Echelon so Honoria is desperate to keep Charlie’s condition hidden for fear he will be taken away and either enslaved or killed.  Worried about her siblings, their lack of money, the fate awaiting them if they are discovered…  the last thing Honoria needs is a summons from the Devil of Whitechapel himself, Blade, a rogue blue blood who managed to escape the Echelon and make an empire of his own among the rookeries where he has ruled for the past fifty years.  Nothing happens in Whitechapel without Blade’s knowing about it or allowing it, and the people who life on his turf are expected to pay for protection in one way or another.  Having no wish to become his mistress or his thrall, Honoria offers the only thing she can; her services as a teacher of elocution and etiquette three evenings a week.

This rather odd bargain is the jumping off point for an action-packed, steamy and very well-devised story with a heartbreaking twist towards the end that had me glued to every single page.  Blade and Honoria are strongly-written, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, and there’s an equally well-fleshed-out secondary cast, many of whom will no doubt feature as future heroes and heroines in their own books.  At first glance, Blade is the sort of damaged alpha-hero found in many romances, but his struggles against the inner darkness that threatens him and the traumatic events of his past nonetheless made me care about him and want him to triumph over them. He’s got his own brand of charm, too; most definitely a diamond-in-the rough, he takes no prisoners but is deeply loyal to those he considers his own, and especially to the small ‘family’ he has built around him.  He delights in rattling the rather starchy Honoria and delights just as much when she gives back as good as she gets – although he readily admits to himself that sometimes she confuses the hell out of him.  Honoria is stubborn, intelligent and strong-willed; her desperation to protect her brother leads her to make one or two questionable decisions, and also to keep the truth of Charlie’s situation from the one man she knows who could help her for perhaps a bit too long.   It’s somewhat frustrating to read, but it does make sense in the context of her character; she’s had to become completely self-reliant and to eye everything and everyone she encounters with suspicion in order to keep her family safe and hidden.

The relationship between this unlikely couple crackles with sexual tension from the moment they meet, and their romance is superbly developed.  Large, well-muscled, brooding and careless of his appearance, Blade is the complete opposite of the elegant, pale-skinned, ennui-laden aristocrats amongst whom  Honoria grew up, so she is surprised at the strength of the fascination she feels toward the dangerous, rogue blue blood who is everything she’s never wanted.  Blade is just as drawn to the prim Honoria, sensing straight away that she is keeping secrets and determined to get them out of her. He’s impressed by her courage and inventiveness, her loyalty and her inner strength; they’re a great couple, the love scenes are sensual and earthy and their HEA is hard fought and well-deserved.

Kiss of Steel is a wonderfully imaginative, dark and gripping read featuring a seriously sexy and intense hero, a spunky heroine and an intriguing cast of secondary characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series, Heart of Iron.

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The Duke of Danger (The Untouchables #6) by Darcy Burke

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After killing his opponent in a duel, Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is known as the Duke of Danger. Tortured by guilt, he shields himself with a devil-may-care attitude. However, when he kills another man in another duel, he’s beyond redemption, even though it wasn’t his fault. He refuses to smear a dead man’s name, especially when he’s left behind a blameless widow who doesn’t deserve an even bigger scandal.

Widowed and destitute, Lady Emmaline Townsend must marry the man of her parents’ choosing or beg unsympathetic relatives for support. The only way out is to ask for help from the one man she’s sworn to hate, the man who owes her anything she asks, the man who killed her husband. They strike a devil’s bargain in which passion simmers just beneath the surface. But her dead husband’s transgressions come back to haunt them and threaten their chance at love.

Rating: B

I’ve been enjoying Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, although I’ll admit I was rather disappointed in the last instalment, The Duke of Defiance and wasn’t sure I was going to read further. But I decided to put that one down as an aberration and I’m glad I picked up The Duke of Danger, which is a much more strongly-written and well-conceived story than the previous one. The eponymous duke isn’t actually a duke, but the ducal nicknames were invented – tougue-in-cheek – to show that the gentlemen in question were of the highest echelons of society and far above the touch of the young ladies who coined them – as well as to be alliterative ;). The Duke of Danger shows a different side to the dashing hero who has fought many duels and escaped with nary a scratch; Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is a man of great integrity and honour who has acquired his moniker because of his involvement in a couple of duels in which he either killed or badly wounded his opponent, but who in in no way sees these events as badges of honour. Instead, he is haunted by the fact he has taken life in cold blood and hates himself for it.

It’s with a heavy heart, and as a last resort, that Lionel calls out Viscount Townsend for threatening to besmirch the honour of a lady who is one of Lionel’s oldest and dearest friends. He gave Townsend every chance to recant, but the man refused, leaving Lionel with one alternative – he will shoot wide in order to merely graze his opponent and take whatever comes his way. But when Townsend turns and fires before the end of the count, Lionel reacts instinctively and out of self-preservation – and shoots the man in the leg instead. It’s believed the wound is not a fatal one – but days later Townsend dies and impulsively, Lionel pays a visit to his widow, telling her she can call on him if there is ever anything she needs. After that, as he has done before, Lionel leaves England to escape the gossip and in an attempt to dull the agony of regret.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

My Fair Lord (Once Upon a Bride #1) by Wilma Counts

My Fair LordThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Henrietta Parker, daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, has turned down many a suitor for fear that the ton’s bachelors are only interested in her wealth. But despite the warnings of her dearest friends, Harriet and Hero, she can’t resist the challenge rudely posed by her stepsister: transform an ordinary London dockworker into a society gentleman suitable for the “marriage mart.” Only after a handshake seals the deal does Retta fear she may have gone too far . . .

When Jake Bolton is swept from the grime of the seaport into the elegance of Blakemoor House, he appears every inch the rough, cockney working man who is to undergo Retta’s training in etiquette, wardrobe, and elocution. But Jake himself is a master of deception—with much more at stake than a drawing room wager. But will his clandestine mission take second place to his irresistible tutor, her intriguing proposal . . . and true love?

Rating: C-


The first in her new Once Upon a Bride series, Wilma Counts’ My Fair Lord is exactly what one would infer from such a title; a Pygmalion inspired tale with the principal roles reversed. Our Covent Garden flower-seller is morphed into a London dockworker by the name of Jake Bolton and our professor is Lady Henrietta (Retta) Parker, eldest daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, who is goaded into accepting a wager proposed by one of her sisters, that she – Retta – could transform “any worker off the London docks” into “your typical gentlemen of the ton.” It’s a popular trope (and the best version of it in historical romance, to my mind, is still Judith Ivory’s The Proposition), but unfortunately, in Ms. Counts’ hands it makes for rather a dull, pedestrian read, mostly because there’s a lot of telling and not much showing and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the principals.

Lady Henrietta is the only child of the Earl of Blakemoor from his first marriage, and she is several years older than her younger half-siblings, twins Gerald and Richard, and daughters Rachel and Miranda. The countess – her step-mother – resents Henrietta and, of course, favours her own children, something which wouldn’t bother Retta quite so much if it weren’t for the fact that her father knows it and does nothing about it. Disgruntled because the countess prevented her accompanying them to Vienna (where the Earl is to attend the Congress) and needled by the constant catty remarks made by her sisters over the fact that Retta is more or less on the shelf, she allows her irritation to get the better of her and is manoeuvred into making the above mentioned wager with spiteful Rachel. While her eldest brother, Gerald, urges caution, Retta’s stubborn streak won’t allow her to back down in the face of her sisters’ mockery, and the bet is made, even as Retta’s common sense tells her it’s a bad idea.

The search for a suitable subject starts the following day down at the docks and eventually settles upon Jake Bolton, who is, to say the least, surprised at the proposal set before him. But as luck would have it, his being installed in the London home of the Blakemoors could be just the thing Jake needs in order to uncover the identity of the person – or persons – responsible for leaking important government information which could undermine England’s negotiations in Paris and Vienna. For Jake is no dockworker; he’s Major Lord Jacob Bodwyn, a military officer and third son of the Duke of Holbrook who has been temporarily seconded to the Foreign Office on the orders of his commanding officer, the Duke of Wellington. The Blakemoors, along with several other prominent families, all of whom have varying degrees of access to sensitive information, have been under discreet surveillance for a while, and his removal to Blakemoor house will allow Jake to do some more close-up snooping.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Moonlight Over Manhattan (From Manhattan With Love #6) by Sarah Morgan

moonlight over manhattan2
This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’ll risk everything for her own Christmas miracle…

Determined to conquer a lifetime of shyness, Harriet Knight challenges herself to do one thing a day in December that scares her, including celebrating Christmas without her family. But when dog-walker Harriet meets her newest client, exuberant spaniel Madi, she adds an extra challenge to her list – dealing with Madi’s temporary dog-sitter, gruff doctor Ethan Black, and their very unexpected chemistry.

Ethan thought he was used to chaos, until he met Madi – how can one tiny dog cause such mayhem? To Ethan, the solution is simple – he will pay Harriet to share his New York apartment and provide 24-hour care. But there’s nothing simple about how Harriet makes him feel.

Ethan’s kisses make Harriet shine brighter than the stars over moonlit Manhattan. But when his dog-sitting duties are over, and Harriet returns to her own home, will she dare to take the biggest challenge of all – letting Ethan know he has her heart for life, not just for Christmas?

Rating: B

It’s no secret that I don’t read a great deal of contemporary romance, but I know that many have enjoyed the other books in Sarah Morgan’s From Manhattan With Love series, so when the latest instalment –Moonlight Over Manhattan – came up for review, I thought I’d give it a try.  On the whole, reading it was a successful venture; I enjoyed the author’s upbeat, gently humorous style and both central characters; and while there’s nothing new here, this would certainly be a good option for anyone looking for a comforting and engaging seasonal read.

Harriet Knight (twin sister of Fliss from Holiday in the Hamptons) is fed up with being treated like she’s a little on the fragiie side by her twin and older brother.  She recognises that their intentions have always been good, but realises now that their protectiveness has resulted in her never really having to tackle anything difficult, whether professionally – where Fliss handles the admin and the awkward clients of the dog-walking company they run together – or personally, so she’s never really had to step outside her comfort zone.  This protectiveness originates from their childhood, which was a miserable one owing to the continual tension that existed between their parents, their never-ending rows and their father’s frequent verbal abuse, which terrified Harriet. The fact that she had a stammer just made things worse – and recognising her particular vulnerability, Fliss and Daniel always tried to divert their father’s attention and protect her from the worst of his vitriol.

With Fliss now settled in the Hamptons with her husband, Harriet feels somewhat adrift, and is determined to forge a new path for herself and take charge of her life.  To this end, the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is designated as Challenge Harriet month, one month during which she will do things she doesn’t normally do or finds difficult – one day, one thing at a time.

One of those challenges is to go on dates.  It’s not that Harriet is desperate for a man – although having someone in her life might be nice if it’s the right someone – it’s that she doesn’t find dating easy, and doing things she doesn’t find easy is what Challenge Harriet is all about.  Unfortunately, however, by date number three, she’s pretty much had enough, and rather than tell the guy – whose online profile was very clearly misleading – that she thinks they should just go home, she instead makes her exit via the bathroom window, and twists her ankle when she lands outside.  Painfully, she makes her way to the ER to make sure it’s not broken, and is seen by the sinfully gorgeous attending physician, Dr. Ethan Black (in spite of the difference in colouring – Ethan is dark haired and blue-eyed –  my mind at this point immediately flew to George Clooney in the early days of ER… *sigh*) who tells her her ankle is badly sprained and to keep off of it for a while.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Hot Pursuit (Black Knights International #11) by Julie Ann Walker


This title may be purchased from Amazon

He puts the hot…

Christian Watson, a former SAS officer and current BKI operator, never thought he would return to England after a terrible turn of events forced him to abandon his homeland. But now he’s back on British soil where old enemies are determined to do him in. Fighting for his life is pretty much SOP for Christian. Doing it with the beautiful, bossy Emily Scott in tow is another matter entirely.

In hot pursuit.

Emily lost her coveted job at the CIA because of a colleague turned rogue, and now she has just one rule when it comes to men: they’re for recreational purposes only. But when she and Christian are thrust into very close quarters while evading two mysterious men who want Christian dead, she can’t help but question all her ideas about love and life lived on the edge. Battling the bad guys is hard enough, battling her feelings for Christian just might prove impossible.

Rating: D-

Hot Pursuit is the latest in Julie Ann Walker’s Black Knights Inc. series which features a group of ex- special forces operatives who now work for a covert government defence firm set up by a former US President.  The book is billed as romantic suspense, but disappointingly, it’s neither romantic nor particularly suspenseful; the central characters are supposed to be in their early thirties and yet act like a pair of hormonal teenagers much of the time, and Ms. Walker has a tendency to talk directly to her audience through the heroine, which is odd and the exact opposite of endearing.

The plot is tissue-paper thin.  After a mission gone wrong, Christian Watson, together with two other members of BKI, their office manager, Emily Scott (who apparently tagged along to keep them out of trouble), and a former marine turned charter-boat captain are forced to hole up in a small cottage in Cornwall until they can safely get out of England and back to the US.  Their anonymity is shot to hell, however, when a bunch of reporters turn up on the doorstep trying to get to Christian, to get the story of what happened when he was captured towards the end of the war in Iraq.  The timing was politically sensitive and the mission to rescue him was messy;  Christian was blamed for the incident (although his identity was never divulged) and quietly left the SAS. He has spent the last few years living well under the radar, so someone must have discovered his identity and location and fed it to the media.  The question is, who?

Watching the news on TV not far away are Lawrence and Ben Michelson, brothers of the soldier killed when the mission to rescue Christian went pear-shaped.  Both are police officers, but Lawrence is a loose cannon – he has never forgiven the unknown SAS officer for his brother’s death and the later deaths of both their parents, and is out for revenge.  Lawrence and Ben make for the cottage hide-out, just in time to witness Christian and his team make their escape, and then follow them to Newquay airport, where a jet is waiting.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer (Scandal and Disgrace #1) by Georgie Lee


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A stolen kiss from a spy!

Working undercover for the government, Bartholomew Dyer must expose a nefarious plot to make Napoleon the ruler of England! He needs access to the highest echelons of Society to find those involved, so he’s forced to enlist the help of the woman who jilted him five years ago—Moira, Lady Rexford.

Moira’s widowed, yet still as captivating as ever, and Bart’s determined not to succumb to her charms a second time. But as they race against time Bart suspects it’s not their lives at greatest risk—it’s their hearts…

Rating: C+

I’ve read a number of books by Georgie Lee over the last few years, and while I’ve enjoyed some more than others, she has yet to write the book that wows me and turns her into an auto-read author. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting, because although Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer, is a more than decent read, it doesn’t have the wow factor, either.

The eponymous Mr. Dyer – Bartholomew – is the fifth son of Lord Denning, who doesn’t care all that much about his children beyond his heir and his spare. Bart’s choice of career has alienated him from his father even further; as a successful and high-profile barrister, his name frequently appears in the newspapers, something his father dislikes intensely. What Denning doesn’t know, however, is that Bart also works for the Alien Office as part of a department dedicated to rooting out traitors working to undermine England’s safety and stability. The irony that the one part of his life that would probably make his father proud is the one part of it he can’t tell him about isn’t lost on Bart.

The book opens when Bart’s close friend and colleague, Frederick, Earl of Fallworth tells him that he will no longer assist him in his quest to foil the plot by a group known as the Rouge Noir to overthrow the government and hand England over to Bonaparte. Bart is frustrated and angry; someone like Freddie has the entrée to circles that are not easily accessible to Bart but Freddie is adamant. Since the loss of his young wife he has been a broken man, drinking heavily and taking little interest in the running of his home and estates. But now, he is determined to do better, and is unwilling to risk his safety – or that of his young son – any longer. Bart is surprised when their heated discussion is interrupted by Freddie’s sister, Moira, the widowed Countess of Rexford, and the woman whom, five years earlier, Bart had hoped to marry but whose family disdained him and encouraged her to marry elsewhere.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Duke (Devil’s Duke #3) by Katharine Ashe

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Six years ago, when Lady Amarantha Vale was an innocent in a foreign land and Gabriel Hume was a young naval officer, they met . . . and played with fire.

Now Gabriel is the dark lord known to society as the Devil’s Duke, a notorious recluse hidden away in a castle in the Highlands. Only Amarantha knows the truth about him, and she won’t be intimidated. He is the one man who can give her the answers she needs.

But Gabriel cannot let her learn his darkest secret. So begins a game of wit and desire that proves seduction is more satisfying—and much more wicked—the second time around…

Rating: C+

I think it’s fair to say that those of us who review books do it because, well, we love books.  We love reading them, talking about them, hearing about them, writing about them and enthusing about them to others.  But when a novel you’ve really been looking forward to, written by an author you admire and whose work you enjoy turns out to be disappointing, it’s hard to sit down and face the prospect of laying out all the reasons the book doesn’t work.

But that goes with the territory, and I can’t tell you how much it pains me to say that The Duke, the latest instalment of Katharine Ashe’s Devil’s Duke series was quite the disappointment. I loved the first two booksThe Rogue and The Earl (I awarded both DIK status at AAR) and had hoped for more of what I’d found there  – a tightly-written, well-conceived plot, intriguing and engaging principals and an intense, character-driven romance … perhaps my expectations were too high, but I didn’t find any of those things here.

The story begins some five years before the principal events of the previous books take place. Aramantha Vale, younger sister of Emily (heroine of The Earl), lovely, vivacious and keen to do something with her life, travels to Jamaica to marry her fiancé, a young clergyman.  Just a couple of days after she arrives, there’s a terrible hurricane, during which she makes the acquaintance of a handsome young naval officer, Gabriel Hume, when they are forced to take shelter together in a cellar.  While her fiancé works to repair his church, Aramantha volunteers her services at the hospital, where she is surprised and pleased to meet Captain Hume once more.  As the weeks pass and the two spend a fair amount of time together, attraction sparks between them, something Aramantha recognises guiltily, but cannot help.  By the time Gabriel’s orders come through, they have agreed she is to call off her betrothal, and he asks her to wait for him to return; but when, not long after Gabriel’s  departure, she receives news of his death, she is utterly heartbroken and goes through with the wedding.  Not long after this, she discovers that reports of Gabriel’s death were greatly exaggerated and hears he has shacked up with a woman in Montego Bay.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.