From London, With Love (London Steampunk #6) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

With London finally at peace, there is only one threat remaining to the stability of the monarchy…. The queen is without an heir.

Queen Alexandra is done with marriage, but as always, the Duke of Malloryn has a plan. With Malloryn insisting upon an heir for the realm, Alexandra reluctantly agrees to accept a husband. But who? With Europe’s most eligible bachelors in London to attend her exhibition, she finds herself pining for the only man who has never betrayed her. The only man she wants. And the one man she cannot have.

A queen’s duty is never done.

Alexandra’s feelings for her dearest friend Sir Gideon have always been warm, but a stolen kiss pushed a friendship into dangerous waters. How can she explain that she has never known desire before? How can she stand to be in the same room as Gideon, without betraying her feelings? And how can she marry someone else?

But there’s an assassin on the loose, and while she may currently be at odds with Sir Gideon, he’s the only man who can save both her wounded heart—and the future of the realm. Foreign princes and meddling dukes, bedamned.

Rating: B-

Bec McMaster’s fantastic London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series reached a breathtakingly exciting close back in February 2019 with Dukes are Forever, wrapping up the overarching plotlines and giving the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn his HEA, leaving the Company of Rogues all happily settled as they continue in their mission to protect their queen and the realm.

But the author wasn’t quite done, and shortly afterwards, gifted her newsletter subscribers with From London, With Love, a long-ish novella (now available to buy) in which the long-suffering Queen Alexandra gets her very own HEA as well.  It’s a story readers had been asking for, and because it’s definitely one for followers of the series, it will make little sense if you haven’t read at least some of the novels that precede it.

When we first met Alexandra in the original London Steampunk books, she was nothing more than her husband’s puppet; the Prince Consort kept her drugged up and docile while he and the ruling Echelon pursued ruthless policies against the non-blue blood denizens of London, keeping the humans, mechs and wervulfen beaten down and using them as fodder for the draining factories that supported blue blood society.  At the end of that series, the Prince Consort was killed, the regime was overthrown, and by the time the Blue Blood Conspiracy series opened three years later, the Queen is recovered and is once more on the throne and ruling with the help of a much more tolerant and even-handled council comprised of her staunch allies (Malloryn, Barrons and Mina, Lynch, Blade etc.).  But as the books in that series showed, the throne is still vulnerable and the political situation, while improving, is still not completely stable.  From London, With Love opens as Malloryn puts a proposal to Alexandra, one she doesn’t care for at all – namely, she needs to marry and produce an heir or name her successor. Should something happen to her before either of those things is done, it could ignite a(nother) civil war.

“I’m tired of war.  I want to take a bloody holiday with my wife without the palace going up in flames.”

Alexandra might not like it, but she sees the wisdom of Malloryn’s words and agrees to seek a husband; at least this time, she will be choosing for herself and marrying on her own terms.   What she doesn’t know is that the wily Malloryn already has someone in mind…

Sir Gideon Scott has been a true friend to Alexandra throughout the worst years and is a trusted advisor and sounding board.  Alexandra is strongly attracted to him and he to her, but he’s a commoner as well as being another human –and Alexandra is sure that the council will oppose her taking a human – and the leader of the Humanist movement, no less – as her husband.

Before Alexandra can take any husband, however, it becomes clear that an assassin has her in their sights, and with the court full of visiting princes and dignitaries from around the world, it falls to Malloryn, Sir Gideon and the CoR to ensure the Queen’s safety and who wants her dead.

The shorter page count means an overall paring down in terms of both plot and romance here.  There are still some vivid action scenes and the stakes are still high, but the romance isn’t quite as convincing as in the other books.  Sir Gideon is a terrific hero; handsome, intelligent and loyal, and Alexandra is a nice mix of confident and vulnerable. I liked them together and Gideon is just what Alexandra needs but I didn’t feel that deep connection between them that exists between the other couples in the series.  They have chemistry for sure, and although I didn’t at first much like Alexandra’s solution to overcoming her fear of physical intimacy, I did like the way Gideon was so careful and respectful of her wishes, and how he wouldn’t let her push herself too far.

The villain of the piece is fairly obvious (despite the presence of the Red Herring designed to throw is off the scent!), but the mystery storyline is entertaining, and affords opportunities for some of the Rogues to become involved in the hunt for the would be assassin.

And speaking of the Rogues, I loved seeing them all again – their wonderful dynamic and camaraderie hasn’t changed – and I especially enjoyed getting to see Malloryn and Adele happily  snarking at each other (and seeing just how well Adele knows her husband).  Malloryn is the same hard-arse he always was but he lets his softer side out a bit more, and I really appreciated the fact that he actually listens to Adele and Gemma when they tell him that he hasn’t always dealt with Alexandra as kindly or as well as he could have done – and then that he has the balls to admit his mistakes and apologise for them.

From London, With Love may not be a personal favourite, but it’s a fun read, with a little bit of everything that has made this series so addictive. The best part of all may have been the very end, when it started to look as though Ms. McMaster was setting up a new series… which she confirms in her author’s note.  The action will shift to the Russian Blood Court and the Scandinavian Wervulfen in her forthcoming London Steampunk: Blood Court series; the bad news is that we’ll have to wait a year or two, but I’ll definitely be here read to gobble it up whenever it appears!

You Only Love Twice (London Steampunk: Blue Blood Conspiracy #3) by Bec McMaster (audiobook) – Narrated by Sienna Frances

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

First rule of espionage: Don’t ever fall in love with your target.

Five years ago, Gemma Townsend learned the hard way what happens when you break this rule. She lost everything. Her mentor’s trust. The man she loved. And almost her life. Love is a weakness she can never afford again.

When offered a chance at redemption, the seductive spy is determined to complete her assigned task: to track down a dangerous assassin known as the Chameleon, a mysterious killer sent after the queen, whose identity seems to constantly change.

But as her investigation leads Gemma into a trap, she’s rescued by a shadowy figure she thought was dead – the double agent who once stole her heart.

A man with few memories, all Obsidian knows is Gemma betrayed him, and he wants revenge. But one kiss ignites the unextinguished passion between them, and he can’t bring himself to kill her.

Can Obsidian ever trust her again? Or is history doomed to repeat itself? Because it soon becomes clear the Chameleon might be closer than either of them realized…and this time Gemma is in the line of fire.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – A-

The books that comprise Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk and Blue Blood Conspiracy series are, to my mind, the best books to have appeared in the genre in recent years. The world-building is meticulous, the characters are all complex and well-rounded, the plotting is tight and the romances are wonderfully steamy, with lots of delicious sexual tension along the way. Her heroes are sex-on-a-stick and her heroines are kickass women who never need to remind readers how unconventional or badass they are; the author shows us everything we need to know. I’ve read all the books (bar one) in the series, and thoroughly enjoyed them all; I’d rate the series as a whole as a keeper, and haven’t awarded any of the books anything lower than a B+. In audio, however? Well, that’s a different story. The two series have different narrators; Alison Larkin narrates the London Steampunk series, and Sienna Frances – who is new-to-me – the Blue Blood Conspiracy books including You Only Love Twice, and while both are accomplished and talented performers, neither is particularly well-suited to the material or able to elevate the stories into must-listens or listen-instead-of-read books. Personally, I think a series like this – where there are more male characters than female ones – needs a male narrator. YMMV of course – Em gave high praise to Ms. Frances’ performance in her review of Mission Improper, but Ms. Frances didn’t work as well for me.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My Lady Quicksilver (London Steampunk #3) by Bec McMaster


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Determined to destroy the Echelon she despises, Rosalind Fairchild is on seemingly easy mission. Get in. Uncover the secrets of her brother’s disappearance. And get out.

In order to infiltrate the Nighthawks and find their leader, Blue Blooded Sir Jasper Lynch, Rosalind will pose as their secretary. A dangerous mission, but Rosalind is also the elusive Mercury, a leader in the humanist movement.

But she doesn’t count on Lynch being such a dangerously charismatic man, challenging her at every turn, forcing her to re-evaluate everything she knows about the enemy. He could be her most dangerous nemesis-or the ally she never dreamed existed.

Rating: A-

Somehow, I read Of Silk and Steam, the final book in Bec McMaster’s fabulous London Steampunk series first, then moved onto the Blue Blood Conspiracy series, so thanks to the TBR Challenge, I’ve been slowly catching up with the books I missed.  My Lady Quicksilver is book three and is every bit as good as those that preceded it, boasting a tightly-written story with plenty of intrigue and high-stakes action, a steamy antagonists-to-lovers romance, excellent world-building and a strongly drawn set of central and secondary characters.

While each book could be read as a standalone (the central storyline and romance are concluded in each book), there’s an overarching plotline that runs throughout the series, so I’d advise starting at the beginning with Kiss of Steel.  There will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

Sir Jasper Lynch, Master of the Nighthawks – London’s (sort of) police force, which is made up of rogue blue bloods (those not of the nobility who became accidentally infected with the craving virus) – has been given just three weeks to track down and arrest the mysterious Mercury, the leader of the humanist movement believed responsible for the recent bombing of the Ivory Tower, the seat of the Echelon’s power.  With two weeks left until the deadline – and knowing that the price of failure to deliver will be his life – Lynch has very little to go on, until he connects rumours of a smuggling operation with the humanist movement, and makes plans to intercept the next shipment.  On a dank, foggy night down by the river, he and his team await their moment to strike – but they’re spotted and all hell breaks loose.  During the fight, Lynch almost captures Mercury – who escapes into the enclaves beyond the city walls.  The enclaves are dangerous places – especially for a blue blood – but he follows anyway and quickly corners his quarry and makes a startling discovery.  Mercury is a woman.  A woman who attracts him and repels him in equal measure.  They circle each other metaphorically, testing each other’s mettle with the thrust and parry of their conversation until, after sharing a heated kiss, Mercury sticks Lynch with a hemlock dart and disappears.

Rosalind Fairchild took on the mantle of the humanist cause espoused by her late husband after his death some eight years previously and her secret identity is known only to a select few.  She was not, in fact, responsible for the bombing at the Ivory Tower;  a breakaway faction of mechs planned and executed it and Rosa tried to prevent it, to no avail.  Her main concern now, though, is her younger brother Jeremy, who was duped by Mordecai, the mechs’ leader, into delivering the bomb.  Rosa doesn’t know if Jeremy is dead or alive and is desperate to find out – and she decides the best way to get the information she needs is by taking a position as secretary to Sir Jasper Lynch at the HQ of the Nighthawks.  She presents herself at Lynch’s office as Mrs. Marberry and talks her way into the job – her no nonsense manner, her gumption and her ability to look him in the eye (not to mention her pretty face and soft curves) convincing him to give her the position on a trial basis.

Searching for Mercury isn’t Lynch’s only priority. The recent gruesome murders of two blueblood families – by a family member seemingly gone beserk – are mystifying and completely random, and Lynch has no real clues to go on.

The plot is engaging and well-executed as is the romance between Lynch and Rosa which is full of the sizzling sexual tension Bec McMaster writes so well.  Lynch is another of her swoonworthy heroes; handsome (of course!), honourable, intelligent and tightly controlled, he comes across as somewhat cold at first, but is gradually revealed to have a dry sense of humour and a vulnerability he keeps ruthlessly hidden.  Rosa’s backstory is heartbreaking; she and her brothers lived on the streets for a while after their mother (a thrall) died, until she was taken in and trained as an assassin and spy by her father, the evil Lord Balfour.  In the eight years since the death of her husband, Rosa has never looked at another man – she just hasn’t been interested – and her attraction to Lynch infuriates her.  She hates blue bloods and he, as the Master of the Nighthawks, answerable to the  even more hated Prince Consort, is the worst of the lot. But as she works alongside Lynch as Mrs Marberry, Rosa begins to see a different side to him and to see him as a man of compassion, with emotions he works hard to keep at bay.  She realises that she’s been wrong in tarring all blue bloods with the same brush and that some of them are actually capable and desirous of doing good.

The author sets up the conflict early on, and then drip-feeds information about the characters and their backstories, slowly revealing the truth about these two flawed and damaged characters, their loneliness, their guilt and their determination to do what they believe to be right.  The sparks fly between Lynch and Rosa right from the start; it’s an attraction neither of them wants or can afford, but it won’t go away, no matter how hard they try to ignore it.  The staid and principled Lynch is very much in lust with Mercury, but is also falling for Mrs Mayberry; he struggles with the fact he’s attracted to two women, while Rosa is unable to resist him, even though she knows she’s heading for trouble.

My Lady Quicksilver is another gripping read in what is one of the best series of paranormal romances of recent years. Lynch and Rosa are fully-formed, three-dimensional individuals with flaws and insecurities who, despite their difficult pasts, have grown into strong, determined individuals who will do whatever they must in pursuit of their goals.  The sexual chemistry between them burns up the pages, the banter is excellent and the romance is both tender and sexy as hell (chess, anyone?! Phew!)

If you haven’t read this series yet, then do yourself a favour and get started.  You can thank me later 😉

Thief of Dreams (Court of Dreams #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Twenty brides. One prince. Who will survive when the competition turns deadly?

When Prince Keir of the Court of Dreams sends out a summons in search of a bride, the Wraith King sees a chance to steal the powerful Dragon’s Heart. He sends his best thief, Zemira Az Ghul, to penetrate the court as one of the potential brides.

All Zemira wants is freedom from the chains that bind her to the king, and if she finds the relic she’ll have it. But the Court of Dreams is more dangerous than she ever expected, and Zemira must soon choose between her freedom—and her heart.

Rating: B-

Thief of Dreams, book one in Bec McMasters Court of Dreams series originally appeared in the Of Thrones and Crowns anthology in 2019 and was republished separately earlier this year.  It’s novella length and sets up the storyline that will (I suspect) run throughout what I believe is going to be a trilogy, so while Thief of Dreams does contain a complete story, it also ends with something of a cliffhanger,  and serves as an introduction to the overarching plot.  The author sets up the main romantic pairing – and if the chemistry hinted at here is continued, then I can’t wait for the rest! – and while I was a bit disappointed things didn’t progress very far on that front, I was also pleased that the author wisely decided there wasn’t time for bedroom scenes or an HEA in the 126 pages that comprise this instalment.

As was the case with the author’s recent Promise of Darkness, I found the first person, present tense narration off-putting.   I understand why first person is necessary in a story like this – it seems to be the preferred style for YA and many contemporary romances – I just don’t care for it, and it took me a while to get used to it.  Actually, it took me longer than it should have done to read 126 pages, and that was partly because of my dislike of this narrative style (and partly because I was listening to an amazing audiobook and didn’t want to stop!)

Once I got back to Thief of Dreams, however, I found it bears all the hallmarks of a Bec McMaster read; a kick-ass heroine, a dangerous, sexy hero and extensive worldbuilding done in a way that flows naturally and never feels like an info-dump; there was (I think) one point at which I felt I was reading a list rather than information that unfolded naturally.  BUT – while the author generally disseminates the information subtly, there’s a LOT of it to absorb here concerning the various fae courts and magic systems, and it all feels a bit rushed and superficial.

Zemira Az Guhl wants nothing more than freedom from the chains that bind her to her father, the Wraith King Beyond the Shadowfangs.  For almost all her life, she has been the kingdom’s most successful thief, able to pluck the last coin from a miser’s purse while he’s watching it, forced to do her father’s bidding in hope of his eventually returning the half of her soul he stole from her at birth.  At last, the opportunity she has waited for is offered her – the king will grant her the rest of her soul if she will steal the Dragon’s Heart from the legendary Court of Dreams.  Zemira is aghast.  Nobody knows where the Court of Dreams resides; its prince tore it from the mortal world long ago and even if its location was known, it’s impossible to enter the court without Prince Keir or his guards knowing, even for her.  But the Prince has sent out a Summons – an invitation to every fae princess in the land – and this is Zemira’s way in.  She must take the place of one of the more obscure of the potential brides, avoid the Prince’s notice as much as possible, locate the heart and steal it.  It’s not exactly going to be a walk in the park.

Of course nothing goes to plan.  Zemira’s plan to avoid Keir’s notice backfires – she’s the one ‘princess’ not falling over herself to win him, so naturally, she’s the one who intrigues him the most.  The other princesses – a bunch of ‘mean girls’ if ever I saw one – start getting picked off, one-by-one by unknown creatures, and a final and hurtful betrayal puts Zemira’s quest at risk and turns her fate in a different direction.

I enjoyed the story, the murder-mystery aspect to the plot is resolved here and there is clearly more to come – but book two isn’t out until 2021, so I hope I’ll remember to look for it! There’s a definite spark of attraction between Zemira and Keir and their flirtations are swoony, but I felt there was something missing in the characterisation, and the first person PoV didn’t allow me to connect with Keir at all.

If I were grading Thief of Dreams purely on its own, I’d probably give it a C+/C.  The writing is solid and the ideas are good, but overall, it feels rushed, the hero is peripheral and the romance doesn’t really get off the ground.  As the introduction to a new series however, I’m upping that to a B- because there’s a lot of potential I’m hoping will play out as the series progresses.  To be honest though, I sort of wish I’d waited to read this until I could jump into book two straight afterwards.

My 2019 in Books & Audio

Before I started writing this post, I took a look at the one I wrote for 2018 – My 2018 in Books & Audio – to see what I had to say about the books I read and listened to and about the things I was hoping for from 2019.  Sadly, my biggest wish – for more winners in historical romance – not only didn’t come true, but didn’t come true in spectactular fashion; I read and listened to considerably fewer historical romances in 2019 (around 60) and of those, only 15 garnered a B+ (4.5 stars) or higher (actually, that was 11 historical romances plus 4 historical mysteries), and only two made the Best of 2019 list I wrote for All About Romance.  Looking at the upcoming release lists for 2020, I can’t see that situation improving; very few of the book blurbs for upcoming HR make me want to read them.

So… what did I read and listen to instead?  My Goodreads stats show that I read and listened to 299 books and audiobooks in 2019, (that figure includes maybe a dozen or so audio re-listens), which is over 40 books more than my total for last year.

Of that total, 66 were 5 star reads/listens, 184 were 4 star reads/listens – by far the biggest category – 35 were 3 star reads/listens, and there were 9 2 stars, 1 1 star and 1 unrated DNF.

Of the 66 highest graded, around a dozen were actual A grades; I award an A- 4.5 stars but bump the star rating up to five.  (And in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a B grade story will get bumped up because of A grade narration). The 4 star ratings cover books/audios I’ve given B-, B or B+ grades, which is quite a large spectrum as it ranges from those books which are given qualified recommendations (B- is 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars) to those which are almost-but-not-quite DIKs (Desert Isle Keepers), the 4.5 stars (B+) I don’t round up.  I had around the same number of 3, 2 and 1 star ratings as last year, which is at least consistent!

The books that made my Best of 2019 list at AAR are these:

(although I cheated a bit and actually included the whole Not Dead Yet and Borealis Investivations series!)

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

I had a list of “also rans” that I would have included had I had more space:

Charlie Adhara’s Thrown to the Wolves was – I believe – originally to have been the final book in her Big Bad Wolf series, but she’s since announced there will be a fourth (yay!).  In TttW, we finally get some backstory for the enigmatic werewolf Park when he takes Cooper home to meet the family, together with a clever mystery, complicated family dynamics and a well-deserved HEA that’s perfectly in character. Cordelia Kingsbridge’s A Chip and a Chair was one of my most anticipated books of the year and didn’t disappoint, bringing the rollercoaster ride that was the Seven of Spades series to a rolliking, satisfying close.  KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage was (I think?) her first m/f romance; a sequel to Any Old Diamonds, it features tough-as-nails lady detective Susan Lazarus and the other half of the Lilywhite Boys in an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  Sally Malcolm’s Twice Shy is a lovely feel-good romance between a young man struggling to bring up two young children left to his care following the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, and a school teacher still dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage and career.  The romance is warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry and is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce happy sighs.

Historical Romance made another really poor showing in 2019; of the authors I’ve previously counted on to deliver really good stories full of interesting and appealing characters, only a few actually managed to do it.  KJ Charles and Mia Vincy made my Best of 2019 list, but Lara Temple (The Rake’s Enticing Proposal), Virginia Heath (The Determined Lord Hadleigh), Janice Preston (Daring to Love the Duke’s Heir) and Marguerite Kaye (The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage) all put out excellent books this year, and I enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s début, Bringing Down the Duke and am keen to read whatever she comes up with next.  I still haven’t got around to reading Julie Anne Long’s Angel in a Devil’s Arms, which has appeared on quite a few Best of lists, so I hope I’ll enjoy it when I get around to it!

I also enjoyed a few historical mysteries; Sherry Thomas (The Art of Theft), Andrea Penrose (Murder at Kensington Palace) and Anna Lee Huber (Penny for Your Secrets) released new instalments in their current series and Cat Sebastian (Hither, Page) began a new one set in an English village post WW2 that combined a cozy mystery with a simply lovely romance.

Audio

I did a very quick count the other day, and think that, for the first year ever, I actually listened to more books than I read (by a very small margin).  I counted around 150 audiobooks (and probably missed a few re-listens because I often forget to mark those at Goodreads) which is half my total of 299 reads/listens. And according to the spreadsheet I maintain of books and audios I’ve picked up for review, I had an equal number of books and audiobooks to review in 2019. I have definitely struggled, at times, to find books I want to review and have filled the gap with audiobooks.  So many are released each month, and I especially love it when backlist titles are made available for authors whose work I enjoy but stand no chance of actually getting to in print!

I chose the following as my Top Five audiobooks of the year at AudioGals:

I also cheated here by including the whole Not Dead Yet series! – which is actually the only title (titles) written in 2019; all the other books were written before last year, but didn’t come out in audio until 2019.  But that’s par for the course with audio; not all of them are released simultaneously with the print/digital versions.  The “also rans” for my audio Best of 2019 list were:

All boast top-notch performances and got at least an A- for narration, and the stories got at least a B+ each; and quite honestly, I could have substituted any of them for the list I actually posted at AudioGals; my favourites tend to change depending on how I feel from one day to the next!  Had I listened to Lily Morton’s Deal Maker before I complied my list, that would certainly have made the cut, too!

So that was 2019.  What am I hoping for in 2020?  I’d like historical romance to get back on track, but I don’t see that happening in a big way and expect to be reading even more selectively in the genre than I’ve done this year.  I’m hoping for more from Mia Vincy and will be checking out more from Evie Dunmore.  Right now, most of the good HR is coming from Harlequin Historical authors, so I’ll definitely be reading more from them. In contemporaries, I’m looking forward to two new series from Annabeth Albert (Hotshots and True Colors) as well as to catching up with her Perfect Harmony series in audio, and to making my way through Lily Morton’s backlist – I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the audio of Risk Taker (with Joel Leslie at the helm) and hope she’s planning more audio releases in 2020.  I’ll be snapping up the finale of L.J Hayward’s Death and the Devil series as soon as it comes out, nabbing more Victor Bayne (and Gomez Pugh!) in the next book(s) in Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series, and inhaling more Hazard and Somerset from Gregory Ashe. KJ Charles promises some 1920s pulp mysteries, there’s another book to come in Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series, so I’m looking pretty nicely set for the first part of 2020 in terms of reading and listening!

I’ll (hopefully) be back again this time next year to tell you now it all panned out!

Promise of Darkness (Dark Court Rising #1) by Bec McMaster

promise of darkness

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Princess. Tribute. Sacrifice. Is she the one prophesied to unite two warring Fae courts? Or the one bound to destroy them?

In a realm ruled by magic, the ruthless Queen of Thorns is determined to destroy her nemesis, the cursed Prince of Evernight.

With war brewing between the bitter enemies, the prince forces Queen Adaia to uphold an ancient treaty: she will send one of her daughters to his court as a political hostage for three months.

The queen insists it’s the perfect opportunity for Princess Iskvien to end the war before it begins. But one look into Thiago’s smoldering eyes and Vi knows she’s no assassin.

The more secrets she uncovers about the prince and his court, the more she begins to question her mother’s motives.

Who is the true enemy? The dark prince who threatens her heart? Or the ruthless queen who will stop at nothing to destroy him?

And when the curse threatens to shatter both courts, is her heart strong enough to break it?

Rating: B+

I’m a big fan of Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk and Blue-Blood Conspiracy series, and was excited to read Promise of Darkness, the first book in her new fantasy series, Dark Court Rising.  Dabney Grinnan – publisher of All About Romance – is also a huge fan of Ms. McMaster’s work, so we both eagerly dove into this one, and then had a chat about what we thought of it.

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

TBR Challenge: Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Victorian London, if you’re not a blue blood of the Echelon then you’re nothing at all. The Great Houses rule the city with an iron fist, imposing their strict ‘blood taxes’ on the nation, and the Queen is merely a puppet on a string…

Lena Todd makes the perfect spy. Nobody suspects the flirtatious debutante could be a sympathizer for the humanist movement haunting London’s vicious blue blood elite. Not even the ruthless Will Carver, the one man she can’t twist around her little finger, and the one man whose kiss she can’t forget…

Stricken with the loupe and considered little more than a slave-without-a-collar to the blue bloods, Will wants nothing to do with the Echelon or the dangerous beauty who drives him to the very edge of control. But when he finds a coded letter on Lena—a code that matches one he saw on a fire-bombing suspect—he realizes she’s in trouble. To protect her, he must seduce the truth from her.

With the humanists looking to start a war with the Echelon, Lena and Will must race against time—and an automaton army—to stop the humanist plot before it’s too late. But as they fight to save a city on the brink of revolution, the greatest danger might just be to their hearts…

Rating: B+

Bec McMaster has created a detailed and original world for her London Steampunk series, a steam-powered but recognisable version of Victorian London that is populated by humans, mechanoids and blue bloods and ruled over by the Echelon.  When I reviewed the first book, Kiss of Steel, I gave a brief outline of the London Steampunk world, so I won’t repeat that here; I’ll assume that if you’re reading this review you know what blue bloods, mechs and verwulfen are and what the Echelon is (and if you don’t, just click on the link above to find out. Or better still, read the books!)  Although each novel features a different central couple, there’s an overarching plot running throughout the series, which means it’s helpful to read them all in order – and there are likely to be spoilers in this review.

Heart of Iron is the second book the series, and it takes place about three years after the events of Kiss of Steel. In that book, we first met the Todd siblings – Honoria, Lena and Charlie – and Honoria, who had worked alongside their scientist father as he attempted to find a cure for the Craving Virus found her HEA with Blade, a rogue blue blood who has made an empire of his own among the rookeries of the East End.  Honoria’s sister Lena never felt at home in the Warren (as Blade’s home is known); not scientifically minded in the way that Honoria was, she was usually overlooked at home, and was brought up on lessons on etiquette and things young ladies should know, prepared for a life in blue blood society.  When the Todds moved to the Warren, seventeen-year-old Lena became fascinated by Will Carver, the big, handsome verwulfen who was Blade’s right hand man, but when, one night, she gathered her courage and kissed him, Will rebuffed her and “he told me he would tolerate my childish little games for Blade’s sake, but that he would prefer it if I didn’t throw myself at him.”  Hurt but determined not to show it, Lena left Whitechapel shortly afterwards with the intention of making her delayed début and returning to society.  Moving into her half-brother Leo’s London mansion as his ward (Leo Barrons is the heir to the Duke of Caine, and can never publicly acknowledge his relationship to the Todds), Lena plunges herself into the social whirl, a whirl which can be an extremely dangerous place for young women like her, who are seen as easy pickings for any blue blood lord until they sign a thrall contract with one, exchanging blood rights for his protection.

But while Lena moves in that dangerous world by night, she is also determined to gain a degree of independence, and to that end, continues to produce incredibly detailed, skilfully-wrought clockwork pieces for Mr. Mandeville, the man to whom she’d once been apprenticed.  Through him, Lena has become involved – albeit peripherally – with the growing humanist movement, who want to oust the Echelon and gain the rights and opportunities they are currently denied.  Lena principally acts as a messenger, carrying encrypted messages from the humanist leader known only as ‘Mercury’ (messages she receives via Mandeville) to the humanists’ contact within the Echelon, whose true identity is also unknown to her.

Will no longer lives at the Warren either, having left the day after Lena kissed him.  He’s still Blade’s muscle, the ‘Beast of Whitechapel’, and visits regularly – although he always times his visits so that he never meets Lena there.  His rejection of her was never because he didn’t want her; he did and still does, but there’s a reason verwulfen are forbidden from taking human mates and Will has no intention of putting Lena in danger.  He was infected with the loupe virus when he was just five years old and it almost killed him; he was then sold to a travelling showman who caged and beat him and exhibited him as a freak. He refuses to risk infecting Lena or to subject her to the horrors and indignities he suffered simply for being who and what he was.

There’s a really well-conceived sub-plot in the book concerning the political manouevering required to broker a treaty between the Echelon and the Scandinavian verwulfen clans against the growing threat posed by fanatical factions in France and Spain.  Barrons asks Will if he will act as a kind of liaison and help win over the more hard-line factions in the Scandinavian party; in exchange, the Echelon will revoke the law that outlaws verwulfen and create a new one that will give verwulfen the same rights as blue bloods. Will isn’t used to mixing in political circles and isn’t comfortable with the idea, but the promised rewards are too good to pass up. He agrees to the proposal – and then asks for Lena’s help to teach him how the ins and outs of blue blood society, not because he longs to spend time with her (hah – you tell yourself that, Will!) but because it will mean he can keep an eye on her and protect her from unscrupulous predators.   Lena decides to use the opportunity to get a bit of her own back on Will, to torture him a little with her nearness and a little flirtation – only to find it backfiring as she realises she’s as desperately attracted to him as she ever was.

Having read the spin off series – London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy – I was pleased to meet some of the characters who will play main roles in those stories, most notably Adele Hamilton, who notoriously entraps the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn (who also makes notable appearances here) into marriage.  There are also appearances by a number of the other secondary characters who move seamlessly in and out of the series; another of the things I so enjoy about this author’s work is the way she never shoe-horns in secondary characters just for the sake of it and they’re all integral to the story.

I liked both Will and Lena, although sometimes I found Lena a little too impetuous and apt to leap before she looked.  Will on the other hand… *sigh*…  is your classic big, brooding and tortured hero who will stop at nothing to keep his lady-love safe, even if it means denying himself the only thing he has ever truly wanted.  On the surface, they’re constantly at odds, but beneath, they’re a seething mass of warring emotions that neither knows how to deal with. I did wish Will had told Lena the real reason behind his rejection earlier than he does, but that’s really my only niggle.  Mostly, their romance is really well done; the sexual tension and chemistry between them burns bright and the eventual love scenes are sexy and romantic.

Bec McMaster again achieves a terrific balance between the various different elements of her story, combining a sensual romance with intriguing plotlines and memorable characters.  Heart of Iron is another terrific read and the London Steampunk series deserves a place on any romance fan’s bookshelf.

Dukes Are Forever (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series #5) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A compromising situation forced him into marriage. But has his wife been working for the enemy all along?

In a steam-fuelled world where vampires once ruled the aristocracy, a dangerous conspiracy threatens to topple the queen, and the Duke of Malloryn knows his nemesis has finally returned to enact his plans of revenge.

Malloryn can trust no one, and when incriminating photographs surface—of an enemy agent stealing a kiss from his wife—he is forced to question just why his wife, Adele, trapped him into marriage.

Is she an innocent pawn caught up in a madman’s games, or is she a double agent working against him?

The only way to discover the truth is to seduce her himself…

Adele Hamilton may have agreed to a loveless marriage in order to protect herself, but that doesn’t stop her heart from yearning for more.

Her husband promised her a cold marriage bed. He swore he’d never touch her. But suddenly he’s engaged in a campaign of seduction—and the only way to keep her wits about her is to fight fire with fire.

The ruthless beauty has locked her heart away, but can she deny the passion that flares between them? And when the truth emerges, will she be the only thing that can save Malloryn’s life?

Or the weapon his enemy will wield against him?

Rating: A

This final instalment in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series proved to be everything I was hoping for.  They’ve been among the most consistently enjoyable and entertaining books I’ve read over the past couple of years, and they’ve only got better as the series has progressed, delivering fast-paced, action-packed and intricately constructed stories featuring strong, engaging characters and intense, steamy romances which deliver immensely satisfying HEAs readers can believe will last because of the strong emotional connections the author develops  between all her heroes and heroines.

Dukes Are Forever sees the final showdown between the Duke of Malloryn and his arch-enemy, Lord Balfour, a confrontation that’s been brewing throughout the whole series.  Readers have been there every step of the way as Malloryn and his hand-picked Company of Rogues have discovered the existence of a new, deadlier form of vampire, a virus engineered to kill blue-bloods, and a group of discontent former Echelon set on destroying London and on bringing down the Queen.  Ms. McMaster has woven the threads of her story together incredibly well, taking our heroes from a position of… not quite weakness, but of knowing that their faceless enemy was always one step ahead – to one of strength as they’ve gradually put together the pieces of the puzzle, united in their determination to protect the city and the Queen, and to end Balfour, no matter what the cost to themselves.

The sense of brotherhood the author has created between the CoR – a disparate group of blue bloods, verwulfen, humans and mecs, all with specialist skills (many of them deadly) – is one of the things that has really stood out for me throughout this series.  There’s never any doubt that this team has been forged in fire and that those bonds are unbreakable; they’d do anything for one another and genuinely care for each other, not that they’d ever say such a thing, showing instead how much they care and how well they know each other through their affectionate teasing and witty banter.  And unlike so many series, there’s never a doubt that the Rogues dodge in and out of all the books for any reason other than that they’re necessary to the plot; there are no “just for the sake of it” cameos here!

From the beginning – and from his appearances in the earlier London Steampunk series – I’ve been intrigued by Malloryn.  Handsome, coolly controlled and uber-confident (and sexy as hell!), he’s one of those heroes who keeps everything locked away and buried deep inside – not because he doesn’t feel, but because he feels deeply and is protecting himself from again experiencing the deep hurt he suffered in his youth.  He’s become my favourite hero of the series (I suspected he would be – I’ve got a thing for the volcanic-fire-beneath-layers-of-ice type),  and the relationship the author has built between him and the Rogues is just wonderful; they annoy him and tease the hell out of him and ground him and stop him getting too big for his boots (! – you’ll get that one once you’ve read the book!) and the moment he finally admits to himself that they’re at his side because they want to be there for him and not just because they’re duty bound is one of the real highlights of the story.

This wouldn’t be a Bec McMaster book without a steamy romance and wow, does she deliver on that score.  When I first learned that Malloryn had been trapped into offering marriage to a young woman he clearly had no interest in, I thought maybe she’d remain a peripheral character, or that perhaps something would happen to prevent the match.  Because we only see her through Malloryn’s eyes, we believe Adele Hamilton to be a cold, selfish schemer who was out to catch herself a powerful husband and succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.  But then the author starts to drop clever hints that perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye, and those hints are strengthened in a climactic (and seriously hot!) scene towards the end of You Only Love Twice, when Adele saves Malloryn’s life at considerable risk to her own and they show they’re not quite as indifferent to each other as they’d have others – and themselves – believe.  And then during the course of this book, we learn more about what prompted Adele to act as she did; she’s not proud of it and daily feels guilty at having forced a genuinely good man into something he clearly didn’t want, but her reasons, when they are revealed fully, are completely understandable and encompass more than just herself and her own safety.

As Dukes are Forever opens, we discover Adele is being pursued by a gentleman other than her husband, a man who has links to the Rising Sons, the organisation of former Echelon who want to restore the old hierarchy wherein blue bloods ruled the roost and all the other species are kept firmly in their – much lower – stations.  When presented with evidence of Adele’s association with this man, Malloryn realises he has to take steps to work out whether she’s actively working against him – not that she’s in a position to know anything about his work with the Rogues – or if she’s being duped and used as a way to get to him.  This leads to the waging of a merry war between them – only this one is a war of seduction, one in which Malloryn would seem to have the upper hand… until Adele shows she knows how to fight fire with fire, and proves as adept at taking apart her husband’s icy veneer as he is at getting past her defences.  The chemistry between them is hot enough to blister paint and their ultimate compatibility is reinforced by the way we’re shown how similar they are; both very guarded and self-possessed, having built up layers and layers of walls around their emotions for good reasons  – and I just loved watching them stripping away those layers and becoming vulnerable to each other.

I’ve said as much about the plot as I’m going to, but if you’ve been following the series, I think you’ll already have an idea of what’s in store, and if not, then go and get a copy of Kiss of Steel and make a start – you’ve got ten excellent novels to experience!  I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent in the London Steampunk world and while I’m going to miss it and these fabulous characters, I’m nonetheless incredibly grateful to have been on this wonderful journey.  Dukes are Forever is a wonderfully rousing and eminently fitting finish to the series, and I loved every minute of it.

My 2018 in Books & Audio

My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks.  I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever.  Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either  story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket.  I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.

4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.

The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else.  Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception.  The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them  at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver.  Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself).  Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Womanwhich I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment.  On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband which was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016.  Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Duke and An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic.  Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist.  Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out.  K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Print and Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites.   Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.

Romantic Suspense

I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop.  In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did.  There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.

The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years.  Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.

My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive.  I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again.  It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas.  Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension.  The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful;  they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it.  Their relationship goes through terrific  highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.

Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER,  one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines.  I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well.  She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top.  And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.

Audio

I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!)  My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.

I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes.  But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees.  Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.

I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others.  I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home – which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.

Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general.  Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well.  Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.


As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019?  First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please!  Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year.  I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous.  I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April.  There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book.  Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific.  I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.

Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!

To Catch a Rogue (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #4) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An impossible heist. A thief and a rogue. But will she steal his heart, instead?

The Company of Rogues finally knows the identity of the mastermind behind a plot against the queen—but their enemy is still one step ahead of them. When he kidnaps one of theirs, the Rogues plan a daring rescue mission that will lead them into the heart of the bloodthirsty Crimson Court.

It’s a job for a master thief, and there’s nothing Charlie Todd likes more than a challenge. To pull off the impossible, Charlie needs a crew, including the only thief who’s ever been able to outfox him.

He broke her heart. But now she must risk it all to save his life…

Lark’s spent years trying to forget her past, but the one thing she can’t ignore is the way a single smile from Charlie still sets her heart on fire. When he proposes they work together again, it feels just like old times, but she has one rule: this is strictly business.

It’s Charlie’s last chance to prove he can be trusted with her heart. But Lark’s keeping a deadly secret. And as passions are stirred and the stakes mount, it might be the kind of secret that could destroy them all…

Rating: A-

To Catch a Rogue, the fourth book in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk: The Blue-Blood Conspiracy series picks up more or less from where the previous book (You Only Love Twice) left off.  Like its predecessors, it’s a fabulous mixture of action, adventure, suspense and romance that pulled me in from the very first page and kept me utterly enthralled until the very end; I’ve been following the series from the beginning and can honestly say that it’s got better and better with each subsequent book.  One thing though – it’s definitely NOT a standalone, so if you like the sound of it, I’d strongly suggest going back to the beginning and starting with Kiss of Steel – I promise you won’t regret it.

There will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

It’s been two weeks since the Company of Rogues finally uncovered the identity of their deadliest enemy, the person responsible for the plot to overthrow the queen and for unleashing all manner of chaos upon London.  Lord Balfour, former right-hand man to the cruel and evil prince consort was thought to have been killed by the Duke of Malloryn during the revolution which overthrew the ruling Echelon, but he survived and has been engineering his revenge – on the city and on Malloryn.  At the end of You Only Love Twice, the duke was captured by Balfour’s lackeys and at the beginning of To Catch a Rogue, we discover he’s been taken to Russia, where Balfour is masquerading as the consort of the Grand Duchess Feodorevna at the violent and deadly Crimson Court.

The Company of Rogues, the small band of spies, assassins, thieves and bounty-hunters assembled by Malloryn to fight the threat to London and the queen, knows where he has been taken and has put together a plan to get him out.  It’s going to be incredibly dangerous and incredibly difficult; the Crimson Court is deadly, merciless and ruthless and the only protection they will have is the diplomatic immunity afforded them by virtue of the invitation sent to Lord Leo Barrons to attend the celebrations commemorating the tsarina’s coronation.

Charlie Todd – who has been a recurring character through both series – has been working for Malloryn and the CoR for some months and, along with Gemma Townsend, has come up with a rescue plan.  But to pull it off, they’re going to need outside help, someone who has never met a lock they couldn’t pick or a wall they couldn’t scale, and Charlie knows just the person for the job.

Lark Rathinger and Charlie were practically inseparable until, on the night of the revolution, her adoptive father, Tin Man, was killed saving Charlie’s life and Lark herself was so badly injured that she’d have died if Charlie hadn’t acted quickly and infected her with the craving virus that turned her into a rogue blue-blood and saved her life.  Overwhelmed with guilt over Tin Man’s death Charlie left Whitchapel – and Lark – behind, and although they’ve seen each other occasionally since, nothing between them has been the same.  Lark doesn’t blame Charlie for what happened, but she is still angry at him for abandoning her when she needed him the most, and is determined never to let him know that he broke her heart.

When Charlie turns up out of the blue and asks Lark to join the mission to free Malloryn, she is tempted by the thought of working with him again.  They’ve always shared a strong connection, the ability – almost – to read each other’s thoughts, and she recalls the thrill of pulling off the most difficult, risky jobs like a well-oiled machine… but she also recalls that the last time they’d worked together someone she cared for had died.  So she refuses – until she realises that Charlie and the CoR won’t be mounting their rescue mission in England, but in Russia.

I’m not going to say more about the plot, which is multi-layered and brilliantly conceived.  The author creates a pervasive atmosphere of menace from the moment the CoR arrives at the Crimson Court, and there’s the real sense that one false move could lead to disaster (and probably a most unpleasant death).  Two other important storylines are skilfully interwoven with the scheme to rescue Malloryn; one concerning Lark’s hitherto unknown past, which is connected to the Russian court in ways nobody expected, and the other devoted to the romance between Lark and Charlie, something fans of the series have been long awaiting.  This is friends-to-lovers romance at its very best; it’s tender, sensual and gorgeously romantic and there’s never any question that these two people know each other inside out and care deeply for one another in spite of the past hurt and misunderstandings that lies between them.  Lark and Charlie have been in love with one another ever since they were old enough to recognise the feeling for what it was, and their years apart have done nothing to lessen the intensity of the pull between them.   Worried for Charlie’s safety, Lark tries to shut him out and remain aloof, but it’s impossible.  From the moment they’re reunited, the pair resumes the verbal sparring that has characterised their relationship, although now, they’re both aware of the undercurrents of sexual tension and desire that run beneath their banter; and soon, they’re addressing the issues that lie between them and confessing the truth of their feelings for one another.  Even so, Charlie knows Lark is holding something back from him (and it’s a doozy!) but he’s a patient man and hasn’t waited this long to be with her to give up now.

I never come away from a Bec McMaster book feeling as though I liked one of the principals more than the other, or that the hero didn’t deserve the heroine in the end, or vice versa.  Each one of her couples are well-matched in terms of intelligence, understanding and ability, and the relationships she creates are ones of mutual respect and equality.  Charlie and Lark are a case in point; they’re both extremely good at what they do, and they never underestimate each other’s ability to do what has to be done.  They want to keep each other safe, yes, but there’s no overprotective BS and their trust and confidence in each other is wonderful to see.  Lark is a great heroine; she’s gutsy and intelligent but with a hidden vulnerability that makes her more rounded and Charlie… *sigh*… Charlie is simply gorgeous.  Not just to look at (although a six-feet-plus, broad shouldered, blond Adonis is nothing to be sneezed at!), but he’s kind, intuitive and loyal – it’s his belief that Malloryn would come for him were he in trouble that is the driving force behind the rescue mission – and his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve for Lark is swoonworthy:

“I missed you so much I could barely breathe, but I needed the time to work out who I was, and you needed the space to grieve. I missed you. Every day. Every night. Every breath I took.”

To Catch a Rogue is a fast-paced, action-packed, intensely romantic adventure that features a couple of terrific principals, an engaging secondary cast of familiar characters (some of the digs at Byrnes had me laughing out loud), truly menacing bad-guys, and a wonderfully complex and superbly executed plot.  I’m eagerly looking forward to the final book (Dukes are Forever) next year, although I’ll also be sad to bid goodbye to this world and these characters.  The London Steampunk books are dangerously addictive, but when they’re this good, who cares?