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

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast (audio) by Nancy Campbell Allen

beauty-clockworth-beast

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Lord of Blackwell Manor, Miles, is plagued by a family curse that changes him into a shape-shifting wolf every month during the full moon.

Lucy, a smart, attractive, and well-respected botanist, travels to Blackwell Manor to take care of her sick cousin, Kate, who is married to Miles’ younger brother. For Lucy, the trip is a welcome respite from her work and recent discovery of a breakthrough serum that could eliminate the scourge of vampires from London. But Lucy finds more than she bargained for when she arrives at the Manor.

Miles, who is brash and inhospitable, does not take kindly to visitors. He is still unsettled by the mysterious death of his newlywed wife. And then there’s Marie, Miles’ sister, who was attacked and murdered just weeks earlier. Miles is horrified to think that he might be to blame for the deaths. And who is the ghost that haunt the halls?

Lucy is convinced that the death of Miles’s wife and sister – as well as her cousin’s mysterious illness – are tied together, but how? Lady Charlesworth has her eye on inheriting Blackwell Manor for her family. Could her daughter, Candice, or her son, Arthur, have had a hand in the mysterious deaths? The clues make a vampire suspect highly likely. During her investigation, Lucy finds herself caring deeply for Miles, but he fights to keep his distance in order to protect Lucy from his family’s secret. And, yet, he feels attracted to the woman who is able to look past the fearsome-looking scar that has marred his handsome face. With no other option, Miles and Lucy must work together if they are to find the answer to the mysteries at the manor.

But that’s not all Lucy wants to solve. There’s a deeper mystery behind Miles. Can she solve that too? Ultimately, she must decide if she can love the man – beast and all.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B-

A Victorian era steampunk/paranormal story, Beauty and the Clockwork Beast is the first in a projected series from this new-to-me-author, and while it was an enjoyable listen, I can’t say that it breaks any new ground. The story is a fairly predictable one, and while the author has peppered the text with things like “telescribers” (which I imagine are mobile phones or tablets), “tons” (short for automatons which are programmed by means of metal punched-cards), steam-powered airships and ray guns; and thrown in a few vampires and shape-shifters for good measure, I never felt as though I was in a fully-defined and alternative world. There’s a nicely gothic feel to the story overall, but really, this is just Victorian England with a few extras bolted on.

Lucy Pickett has gone to stay with her cousin Kate at Blackwell Manor. Kate is newly and happily married to Jonathan Blake, younger brother of the Earl of Blackwell, but she has been unwell for some time, and Lucy is concerned about her. Lucy works for the Botanical Aid Society and is an expert on plants and herbs and their medicinal – and other – qualities. She is a botanist of some renown and one of a small number of people working on a top-secret project to develop something to combat Vampyric Assimilation Aid, a drug which enables vampires to move around in daylight and blend in with the normal population, making them even more dangerous than they already are. Lucy hopes that she will be able to find out what is wrong with Kate and help her to regain her health.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.