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.

Badlands (Badlands #1) by Morgan Brice (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Medium and clairvoyant Simon Kincaide owns a Myrtle Beach boardwalk shop where he runs ghost tours, holds seances, and offers private psychic readings, making a fresh start after his abilities cost him his lover and his job as a folklore professor.

Jaded cop Vic D’Amato saw something supernatural he couldn’t explain during a shootout several years ago in Pittsburgh and relocated to Myrtle Beach to leave the past behind, still skeptical about the paranormal. But when the search for a serial killer hits a dead end, Vic battles his skepticism to ask Simon for help.

As the body count rises, Simon’s involvement makes him a target and a suspect. But Simon can’t say no, even if it costs him his life and heart.

Rating: Narration: B; Content: C+

Morgan Brice’s Badlands is the first book in a series featuring medium and clairvoyant Sebastian (Simon) Kincaide – a former university professor and expert in mythology and folklore – and Lt. Vic D’Amato, a homicide detective whose one brush with the supernatural a couple of years before the story opens almost cost him his career. It’s a murder mystery with a paranormal twist, but although the premise was intriguing, the execution left a bit to be desired, both in terms of the romance and the mystery.

Sebastian now goes by Simon (which I think is his middle name?) and has done since he moved to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina following his dismissal from his university post some three years earlier. His courses on myths and folklore were popular, but when the crazy fundamentalist father of one of his students – who was also a member of the university board – took issue with the course content and then discovered reports online of Simon’s clairvoyance, his department was forced to dismiss him. Simon now owns a thriving business in the resort of Myrtle Beach – Grand Stand Ghost Tours – and makes his living from holding seances, running tours, and giving talks and classes.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Thrown to the Wolves (Big Bad Wolf #3) by Charlie Adhara

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Agent Cooper Dayton is going to meet his boyfriend’s werewolf family. Unarmed. On their turf.

And he’s bringing his cat.

When Agent Cooper Dayton agreed to attend the funeral for Oliver Park’s grandfather, he didn’t know what he was getting into. Turns out, the deceased was the alpha of the most powerful werewolf pack on the eastern seaboard. And his death is highly suspicious. Regardless, Cooper is determined to love and support Park the way Park has been there for him.

But Park left him woefully unprepared for the wolf pack politics and etiquette. Rival packs? A seating order at the dinner table? A mysterious figure named the Shepherd? The worst is that Park didn’t tell his family one key thing about Cooper. Cooper feels two steps behind, and reticent Park is no help.

There are plenty of pack members eager to open up about Park and why Cooper is wrong for him. Their stories make Cooper wonder if he’s holding Park back. But there’s no time to get into it…as lethal tranquilizer darts start to fly, Cooper needs to solve the mystery of the alpha’s death and fight for the man he loves—all before someone else dies.

Rating: A-

Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series has been something of a surprise hit for me.  I’m not normally into stories about werewolves, but AAR’s review of The Wolf at the Door convinced me to read it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  Although each of the three books features a self-contained mystery that’s solved by the end, the romantic relationship between the human FBI agent Cooper Dayton and his werewolf partner, the enigmatic, coolly-collected Oliver Park, develops throughout the trilogy, so I wouldn’t recommend jumping into this one without having read the other two.  And if you were waiting for the final book before starting the first, be warned that there are spoilers for The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay in this review.

Cooper and Park have come a long way since they first teamed up in order to solve a case involving a string of vicious murders.  Moving from suspicion and animosity to professional trust, personal friendship and more, they’ve struggled, at times, to admit to the truth of their feelings for one another and talk through their issues (just as you’d expect of two stubborn, alpha males!), but by the end of The Wolf at Bay they’re committed to each other and to their relationship, even though there are still a few bugs to be ironed out – not least of which is the fact that Cooper is sure there are things about himself Park is still keeping from him.

When Thrown to the Wolves opens, Cooper and Park are on their way to Nova Scotia in order to attend the funeral of Park’s grandfather Joseph, the alpha of the Park pack. Oliver has been on edge ever since receiving news of the man’s demise a day earlier, and although he is no longer a member of the pack (having turned his back on it when he learned they’d been concealing the truth about the deaths of his parents) he decides to return to the family estate to attend the funeral, and asks Cooper to go with him.  Unlike Cooper, who wasn’t out to his family before the events of The Wolf at Bay, Park’s family knows he has a boyfriend and accepts his sexual orientation without a problem.  But as soon as Cooper and Park arrive – following a life-threatening accident – Cooper realises something is off; and it doesn’t take him long to figure out what it is.  The Parks may be fine with the fact that Oliver is gay – but the fact he’s in a relationship with a human?  That, they’re not pleased about.

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

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray.

When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairy tale, where all the rules of magic – and love – are changed.

To set Thornby free, both men must face life – changing truths – and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

This original and entertaining fantasy romance was one of my favourite books of 2018, so I was delighted when I learned I’d be able to experience it again in audio format performed by a narrator I’ve enjoyed listening to on several occasions; it’s always nice to know something you’re looking forward to is unlikely to be a huge disappointment! Salt Magic, Skin Magic is set in a Victorian era in which magic is known about and practiced, and author Lee Welch does a terrific job, right from the opening lines, of pulling the listener into the tale, creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty that immediately grabs the attention.

Soren Dezombrey, Viscount Thornby, was happily kicking up his heels living a life of luxury and dissolution in London until his father, the Marquess of Dalton, burst into his home one morning and forced him to return to Raskelf Hall, the family seat in Yorkshire. That happened eighteen months earlier, and Thornby has been unable to leave ever since. He’s not physically restrained in any way, but something stops him each time he gets near the estate boundary; he feels panicky, he’s assailed by all sorts of doubts and fears, his mind keeps telling him there’s something else he should be doing (like the Victorian equivalent of “have I left the iron on?”) – he literally CAN’T leave.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

 

Deep Deception (Deep #2) by Z.A. Maxfield (audiobook) – Narrated by Caleb Dickinson

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

He’ll give up everything for his immortal lover…except his humanity.

Leave a note and slip away to Paris alone, Adin thought. It’ll prove to his vampire lover he doesn’t need 24/7 supervision, Adin thought. Instead Adin lands in a surreal situation that isn’t going to endear him to Donte – at all.

As he awaits an old foe, Ned Harwiche III, for a prearranged meeting, Adin is head butted, tossed into the back of a car…then gets the chance to acquire an artifact Harwiche had been bidding on.

Adin jumps at it, if only as payback for all the dirty tricks Harwiche has pulled over the years. To his horror the “artifact” turns out to be an adolescent boy named Bran.

Sickened, Adin vows to help the boy out, but like Donte – like a lot of the world Adin never knew existed – Bran isn’t at all what he seems to be.

While Donte and Adin negotiate the meaning of the word forever, Bran is running out of time. Especially when tragedy and betrayal pit Adin’s long-cherished beliefs against Donte’s love.

Rating: Narration – C+ : Content – C

There are spoilers for the first book in the Deep series, Deep Desire, in this review.

When five-hundred-year-old vampire Donte Fedeltà and his human lover Adin Tredeger embarked upon a relationship at the end of Deep Desire, it was clear that the road to Happily Ever After wasn’t going to be an easy one, not least because of Adin’s emphatic refusal to allow Donte to turn him (into a vampire) so that they can be together for all time. For Adin,

“It’s [life is] my journey. And without its beginning, its middle and its end, I’m not ever going to be the man I was born to be.”

– and he is content to be with Donte for the time allotted to him. However, this isn’t the only issue causing friction between them in Deep Deception. Adin is fed up with Donte continually treating him as though he needs constant supervision. He accepts that the supernatural world he is discovering contains previously un-thought-of dangers, and he’d hoped, after months of self-defence classes and constant lecturing, that Donte would realise he doesn’t need to be so protective… but after yet another spat, Adin decides he needs some breathing space, and slips away to Paris to attend an auction, leaving his lover a note –

“I’ll be back but you’re going to have to get used to letting me come and go.”

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Not Dead Yet (Not Dead Yet #1) by Jenn Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Dying isn’t what it used to be.

Wes Cooper was dead. Then he wasn’t—though he’s not exactly alive, either. As an immortal not-ghost, he can transition between this world and the otherplane, which makes him the perfect thief for hire. For seventy years he’s made a “living” returning items to their rightful owners, seeing his fair share of the bizarre in the process. But he’s never witnessed murder. Until now.

His latest mission brings him more than he bargained for: a very-dead actor who is definitely going to stay that way. It’s just Wes’s luck that his ex-boyfriend, Detective Hudson Rojas, is assigned to the case. Hudson broke Wes’s heart years ago—and could again, given he’s rocking a hot silver-fox look that shouldn’t be legal.

As they work together to track down the murderer before anyone else gets hurt, it becomes clear Wes and Hudson have unfinished business. And when a secret Hudson’s been keeping threatens more than just their happiness, it might mean the end of their not-life together—permanently.

Rating: A-

For some reason, I’ve been gravitating towards paranormal romances lately, most often ones featuring characters involved in law enforcement, which was the immediate appeal of Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet.  It’s the first in a new series in which one of the protagonists is, as the title suggests, Not Dead.  Although he’s Not Alive either, which is certainly a unique twist and not something I’ve come across before.  Not Dead Yet is a hugely enjoyable read featuring two well-rounded principals, an intriguing mystery, and a slow-burn romance; I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked it up, but it turned out to be a winner and I’m definitely on board for the rest of the series.

In 1933, Wes Cooper was shot and killed by his lover, Michael.  But Michael’s sister was a witch and, unable to accept what her brother had done, cast a spell to bring Wes back to life – but not only did it resurrect him, it made him immortal, something that’s changed his life in lots of small ways as well as the one  big one.  Wes will never age physically and because of this, he never – well, almost never – embarks upon close friendships or relationships, knowing there’s only so long he can use the excuse of having good genes to explain away his unchanging appearance.  He’s had to move around and change his identity every ten years or so in order to stop people wondering about him, and his only real friends have been the generations of witches from the family who brought him back from the dead.  Even so, he’s flesh and blood; he lives in the world as we know it, but he also retains a link to the otherplane, the place where the dead go before moving on, and where some of them linger, usually in hopes of concluding unfinished business.

Wes uses his ability to slip between the planes of existence to earn a living, sneaking into people’s private spaces as a ghost to recover items for interested parties – heirlooms they want back, contracts they shouldn’t have signed and even information they can use for blackmail.  He’s treading a fine line; technically he’s committing theft, although he prefers to think of it as ‘retrieval’, but because of the nature of what he does, he has a very strictly defined set of business practices designed to protect him and his identity; clients come to him via a sophisticated set of referrals and anonymous messages, and he never meets directly with any of them.  And their targets are usually shady types, people who’ve done things that are not-so-nice, making them dangerous to be around.

When Wes is in the otherplane, he isn’t able to see clearly into the living world, seeing instead a series of shapes and shadowy images that don’t allow him to pick out any details, which is why he’s slow to realise he’s witnessing the final stages of a murder. He’s on a job at the home of a famous actress, realises too late what’s going on and is rooted to the spot by fear and indecision. The murderer has a shadow like nothing Wes has ever seen – dark grey, with jagged edges and surrounded by an aura of danger – all of it signalling this is something he does not want to mess with.

Still, he feels guilty and ashamed that he did nothing to help the victim, and this eventually compels him to try to help bring the killer to justice. But where to start? Going to the police will reveal his presence at the murder scene – but maybe there’s a way to approach them through… unofficial channels. In the 1980s, Wes dated a cop, Hudson Rojas, for five years, and okay, they split up a bit acrimoniously – mostly because of Hudson’s unwillingness to put his relationship before his job – but he’s one of the few people Wes ever told about his abilities and if he’s still around, perhaps he’d be willing to use Wes’ information in the investigation.

After thirty-three years, their reunion is – unsurprisingly – an awkward one. At fifty-eight, Hudson is still gorgeous, a fit, hot, silver-fox, but he’s grown up in a way that Wes still hasn’t, for all that Wes is over a hundred years old. Hudson listens carefully to Wes’ story, but makes it clear he’s not interested in catching up or making small talk; his dismissive attitude irritates Wes, but even so, Wes agrees to help by accompanying (as a ghost) Hudson as he interviews suspects, looking for anyone whose silhouette matches that of the killer. As they work together, Wes and Hudson have to navigate the tricky waters of their shared past and deal with all the baggage that still lies between them, and… let’s just say that there are some big surprises in store.

The world-building in Not Dead Yet is skilfully done, with the story existing in a world that is recognisably our own but which also incorporates a parallel paranormal universe. Ms. Burke does a great job of defining the capabilities of the various supernatural characters she introduces, setting clear restrictions and boundaries, such as the fact that a witch can never cast a spell for personal benefit, or the limitations on Wes’ ability to shift between planes and from place to place. The mystery is really intriguing and kept me guessing right up until the final chapters, and there are some great twists, turns and revelations along the way.

The relationship between Wes and Hudson is extremely well developed, and they’re very strongly characterised as individuals, too. Wes sometimes comes off as rather immature – in spite of his actual age – which is something that is brought home to him when he first meets Hudson again, and which he struggles with throughout the story. The author does a great job in showing how Wes’ social isolation – firstly as a kid growing up in a hostile environment and then as something imposed on him by his immortality – has led to his habit of self-interest and looking after number one, and then in showing his character growth as he at last acknowledges these traits and pushes through his fears in the attempt to do better.

Hudson is equally strongly defined, a dedicated cop who has been around the block (and then some) a few times, but who has never forgotten Wes over the years, and their rekindling relationship is a delicious slow-burn. It’s never explicitly stated that Wes is demisexual, but from references to the infrequency with which he experiences sexual attraction and the way he experiences it – usually only when he’s emotionally invested – and the fact he’s only been sexually attracted to two men in his long lifetime (Michael and Hudson) would seem to indicate that to be the case. And I loved that Hudson knows how attraction works for Wes and is mindful of that as they resume a physical relationship.

There’s a great secondary cast, too, notably Wes’ best friend Lexi (the great-granddaughter of the witch who brought him back from the dead) and Evan, a ‘baby’ (recently turned) vampire, both of whom I hope to see more of in future books.

Not Dead Yet is a really entertaining read, and one I’m definitely recommending. I was excited to find such a unique premise (in Wes’ not-dead-ness) and all in all, it’s a thrilling, funny, insightful and sexy read, one I devoured in a couple of sittings. The main plotline is wrapped up by the end although there are some intriguing threads left for the remainder of the series; and while Wes and Hudson have found each other again, I suspect there’s more to come for them as a couple. I’m really looking forward to the next instalment, Give Up the Ghost, which is due out this summer.

Deep Desire (Deep #1) by Z.A. Maxfield (audiobook) – Narrated by Caleb Dickinson

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

There’s no leverage like seduction…until love takes a bite of his plans.

As the Indiana Jones of historical erotica, there is no document existing – or just rumored to exist – Adin Tredeger can’t unearth. Why he would risk the biggest coup of his career to join the mile-high club is beyond him. But the disarming, dark-eyed man who somehow enters Adin’s locked airplane washroom has him completely nude and coming apart. All without a whimper of protest.

From that moment Adin and Donte Fedelta engage in an international battle of wit and cunning. The prize – a priceless, 500-year-old journal with illustrations so erotic it could make the Marquis de Sade blush. Yet Donte’s desire for the journal goes far beyond simple possession. The undead nobleman wrote it. And he’s not above using every trick in his otherworldly arsenal – including seduction – to get it back.

Chemistry draws them together even as fortune tugs them apart. But when a third party joins the chase, they must unite to fight an enemy with a deadly goal – to erase Donte from history.

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – B

Romances featuring vampires aren’t ones I gravitate towards, but the audio of the Deep series was recommended to me by a friend on Goodreads, and as I’ve enjoyed books by Z.A. Maxfield in the past, (and I’d seen the series crop up in the Audible Romance Package), I picked it up. On the whole, that was a good decision, and I was engaged and entertained throughout all three books in spite of some inconsistencies in the plots and issues with the narration in book two in particular.

Deep Desire opens as Dr. Adin Tredeger, an authority on antique erotica, is flying home to San Francisco following the purchase of a very rare manuscript on behalf of his university. Notturno, a five-hundred-year-old journal that details the forbidden love affair between an Italian nobleman and his male lover, is the find of Adin’s career, and he is determined to keep it safe, some instinct telling him to pack it in his luggage rather than in his carry-on for the journey home.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.