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?

You Only Love Twice (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #3) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

With the clock ticking down, the Company of Rogues must find a deadly killer and stop them from assassinating the Queen… before London burns.

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: A-

The third book in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series, You Only Love Twice boasts an engrossing, intricately-woven and high-stakes suspense plot woven through a steamy second-chance romance and I was glued to it from pretty much start to finish. We’ve reached the middle of a five-book series, and the author provides some compelling plot developments, drawing together threads from the first two books to reveal the terrifying nature of the threat faced by this version of Victorian London, and who is behind it. This instalment also ends on rather a massive cliffhanger – but fortunately, Ms. McMaster isn’t going to make readers wait too long to find out what happens next as book four, To Catch a Rogue, is coming out in October .

Be warned –there are spoilers in this review, so if you’re planning to read the series and haven’t yet, proceed with caution.

In case I haven’t made it clear, the novels in the Blue Blood Conspiracy series need to be read in order. Each book focuses on a particular romantic pairing and has a self-contained plotline, but there are also overarching storylines that run throughout, so I would advise going back to book one, Mission Improper, in order to fully appreciate the intricacies of the stories and of the richly detailed world that the author has created.

I don’t have space in this review to delve too far back into the on-going storyline, so I’m going to assume anyone reading this is familiar with the London Steampunk world of these books, and knows what the Echelon is, what blue bloods, vampires, dhampir and mechs are, and is aware of the basic conflict that has featured thoughout; namely, the overthrow of the corrupt and degenerate ruling class (the Echelon) by an alliance of more progressive blue-bloods, mechs and humans in the original series, and in this one, the unrest that continues to plague London as everyone struggles to settle into the new order… a new order that someone is intent on destroying.

A highly trained spy and deadly assassin, Gemma Townsend is one of the Company of Rogues’ most valuable operatives. Five years earlier, she’d been on a mission in Russia, working with the Duke of Malloryn (leader of the CoR) to undermine the creation of an alliance between the Russian Blood Court and the Echelon, when she’d met and fallen for Dmitri Zhukov, who was working for their opponents and in favour of the treaty. The pair fell in love against the odds and their better judgements, but in a heartbreaking betrayal, Gemma was shot by her lover and left for dead. She survived thanks to some quick thinking on Malloryn’s part, and believes Dmitri died in St. Petersburg… until a recent attempt on her life was thwarted through the actions of someone she could almost swear was him.

Following Gemma’s shattering betrayal in Russia, Dmitri – now a powerful dhampir known as Obsidian – wanted nothing more than to forget her, and thanks to a combination of technology and conditioning, has been able to do exactly that.  He no longer has any memory of those events and doesn’t want to remember them; he’s learned to hate Gemma, but when the leader of the dhampir orders her death, he finds there’s something in him that won’t allow him – or anyone else – to kill her.  He doesn’t understand why  – she used him and betrayed him and he wants revenge – but instead of carrying out his orders, he kidnaps her in order to keep her safe.  He knows that he’s likely signing his death-warrant, but whatever is driving him to protect Gemma is stronger than his fear of retribution.

The scenes between the couple are electric and filled with intense emotion and chemistry that five years have done nothing to quell.  At first they’re both furious, each believing themselves betrayed by the other, and it becomes clear to the reader – and to Gemma – that Obsidian’s recollections have been altered somehow.  The more time he spends around her, the more he begins to question everything he’s been told and everything he thought he believed in, which gives Gemma hope that he may be amenable to helping the CoR … and that perhaps they can have another chance at a future together.

The author splits the narrative very skilfully between the romance and the overarching plot, which certainly thickens in this instalment. The murder of a former serial killer sets off a train of events that lead Malloryn to the realisation that the threat London faces is far greater than previously imagined; an old adversary is out to cause chaos, foster anarchy and overthrow the queen, and he won’t rest until he’s destroyed Malloryn in spirit, mind and body.

Bec McMaster is a fantastic storyteller, and I was on the edge of my seat several times, particularly in the last section of the book which is full of brilliant, shocking twists and turns.  I love second-chance romances, so Gemma and Obsidian’s storyline was one I was really looking forward to, and the author definitely doesn’t disappoint on that score.  Gemma is a terrific heroine – lethal in a fight, but possessed of a big, loving heart, she’s quick-witted and fiercely loyal; and while Obsidian is slightly less well-defined, it makes sense that he would be so given that he’s suppressed his memories for years and is only just coming to know himself once more.  The strength of their connection just leaps off the page, and the depth of their feelings – the hurt, the desire and the love – is evident in every moment they spend together. The sex scenes are earthy and passionate, the action is fast-paced, and the cliffhanger ending has me looking anxiously at the calendar and thinking October can’t come too soon!

I loved the affectionate banter and close-knit relationships the author has drawn between the rest of the Rogues, and watching the way they accept Obsidian for Gemma’s sake and then for his own. I was also really pleased to get  to know a bit more about Malloryn, who has been a strong, somewhat enigmatic presence in the series so far –  I’m now even more excited than ever to read his story in the final book.

If you’re already hooked on this series, then you probably need no urging from me to go out and grabYou Only Love Twice; if you have yet to try a book by Bec McMaster and you’re a fan of steampunk/paranormal historical romance then I have no hesitation in recommending the London Steampunk and Blue Blood Conspiracy series most strongly.

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.