The Gangster (Magic & Steam #2) by C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, magic caster for the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has recovered from injuries obtained while in Shallow Grave, Arizona. Now back in New York City, Gillian makes an arrest on New Year’s Eve that leads to information on a gangster, known only as Tick Tock, who’s perfected utilizing elemental magic ammunition. This report complicates Gillian’s holiday plans, specifically those with infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly, who promised they’d ring in 1882 together.

The two men stand on the cusp of a romance that needs to be explored intimately and privately. But when Gillian’s residence is broken into by a magical mechanical man who tries to murder him on behalf of Tick Tock, he and Gunner must immediately investigate the city’s ruthless street gangs before the illegal magic becomes a threat that cannot be contained.

This might be their most wild adventure yet, but criminal undergrounds can’t compare to the dangers of the heart. Gillian must balance his career in law enforcement with his love for a vigilante, or lose both entirely.

Rating: A-

In The Gangster, the second book in C.S. Poe’s entertaining and exciting Magic & Steam series, we join Special Agent Gillian Hamilton for another exhilarating adventure, this time on his home turf of New York City.  As in the first book – The Engineer – the story is fast-paced and clever, featuring well-drawn, interesting characters and a number of vivid, expertly realised action scenes, and the author’s world-building continues to impress. Readers are immersed in a recognisable vision of Gilded Age New York, but with significant differences –  such as the magic-powered airships (the quintessential steampunk mode of transport!) that have replaced the transcontinental railroad – due to the harnessing of magic as a commodity during the so-called Great Rebellion – surely this world’s version of the American Civil War.

At the end of The Engineer, Gillian left Shallow Grave in Arizona to return to New York – but carries with him a promise from Gunner the Deadly – the outlaw with whom he’d become romantically involved – that they will see each other again on New Year’s Eve.  Gillian is alternately hopeful and anxious, desperately wanting to see Gunner again while trying to talk himself into not being too disappointed when Gunner doesn’t show.  Because what could a gorgeous, uber-confident, gun-slinging cowboy possibly see in an unprepossessing, repressed individual like Gillian?

It’s 31st December 1881, but before Gillian has to face either joy or disappointment, there’s a day’s work to be done, and on this particular day, he’s chasing down a lowlife called Fishback, a criminal known to have a penchant for killing cops and for working for some of the city’s biggest organised crime syndicates.  Gillian suspects Fishback is acting as the middle-man in the trade of weapons that use illegal elemental magic – and when he’s eventually able to question him, those suspicions are confirmed.  Fishback delivers the shipments – which originate somewhere “out West” – to Tick-Tock, a newly-arrived and widely feared crime boss/gangster who, so far, nobody has ever seen.  Not even Fishback, who tells Gillian he meets with a magical mechanical man who picks up the deliveries on Tick Tock’s behalf.

Shortly after the interview, Gillian heads to Grand Central to pick up Gunner.  He’s late, and worries that he’s missed Gunner or worse, Gunner hasn’t come at all.  But he has.  Their reunion is restrained because they’re in a public place, but Gillian is overjoyed and relieved to see the man who has occupied almost his every waking thought for the past two months.  And miraculously, it seems Gunner is pleased to see Gillian, too.

Gillian and Gunner barely have a moment to themselves (although they do put the few moments they have to very good use!) before they’re plunged headlong into a breathless game of cat-and-mouse with the most dangerous individual in the city.  And while they’re battling nightmarish mechanical men – gruesome half man/half machines with weapons surgically grafted to their bodies – fending off attacks from illegal magic and fighting for their lives in some really vivid, well-conceived action scenes, there are some lovely moments of introspection and emotional closeness, too, which cement and strengthen the connection between them.

Gillian and Gunner are both likeable, compelling characters it’s easy to invest in and root for.  In The Engineer, it was obvious there was more to Gillian than met the eye, and here the author sheds more light on what he’s hiding.  It’s also clear that he’s keeping some big, dark secret that he’s ashamed of and afraid of, something he seems to be desperately trying to atone for that has convinced him he’s unworthy of love or affection and that he doesn’t deserve good things in life.  He’s desperately lonely, rigidly controlled and hides himself in plain sight, but keeping himself hidden (in more ways than one) for over a decade is starting to take its toll, and at times we get a glimpse of a man close to the edge, someone dangerous and volatile.  But he’s also endearingly shy and charming with a dry sense of humour and a clearly defined sense of right and wrong… although the line between them has blurred a bit since he met Gunner.

Self-possessed, sexy Gunner is the perfect foil for Gillian, injecting some calm into his hectic life.  He encourages Gillian to embrace who he is and what he wants, providing solid support and reassurance on personal issues and has his back without question when they have to face off with the bad guys.  He’s not a great talker, but when he does have something to say he’s usually to the point and incredibly insightful; he sees Gillian in a way nobody else has, and has discerned things about him that no-one else seems to have noticed – that Gillian is a great deal more powerful than he lets on, and that there’s something devastating and immensely painful in his past.  But he knows better than to push for details; he’s prepared to bide his time and wait for Gillian to tell him the truth.

The Gangster is a terrific blend of tender romance and rollicking adventure yarn that will have you ‘heart-eyes’ and on the edge of your seat by turns.  The mystery is nicely done, with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers guessing, and I liked the glimpses we got of Gillian’s work life and of his relationship with his boss – who, he’s only just worked out, may possibly be harbouring a tendre for him. The author’s descriptions of the New York locations are really evocative, and her depictions of the mechanical men and Gillian’s amazing feats of magic are inventive and full of imagery so vivid and colourful as to create a lasting impression in the mind’s eye.  And best of all, the love story is never pushed aside in favour of the plot; there are some wonderfully loving moments between Gillian and Gunner, and even though the story takes place over just a few days, by the end, they’ve admitted that they want more from each other and there’s a new, deeper level of intimacy between them.  Which is when Ms. Poe drops one helluva bombshell that had me (mentally) screaming  “nooooooooooooo!” and searching frantically to see if I could find a release date for book three!

So, yes, there’s a cliffhanger, but don’t let that put you off.  The Gangster is a thrilling and utterly captivating instalment in the Magic & Steam series, and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the release of book three, The Doctor.  I hope it’s not too long a wait!

The Engineer (Magic & Steam #1) by C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton is a magic caster with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam. He’s sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona, to arrest a madman engineer known as Tinkerer, who’s responsible for blowing up half of Baltimore. Gillian has handled some of the worst criminals in the Bureau’s history, so this assignment shouldn’t be a problem. But even he’s taken aback by a run-in with the country’s most infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly.

Gunner is also stalking Shallow Grave in search of Tinkerer, who will stop at nothing to take control of the town’s silver mines. Neither Gillian nor Gunner are willing to let Tinkerer hurt more innocent people, so they agree to a very temporary partnership.

If facing illegal magic, Gatling gun contraptions, and a wild engineer in America’s frontier wasn’t enough trouble for a city boy, Gillian must also come to terms with the reality that he’s rather fond of his partner. But even if they live through this adventure, Gillian fears there’s no chance for love between a special agent and outlaw.

Rating – B

The Engineer is the novella-length first instalment in C.S. Poe’s Steampunk AU Magic & Steam series, and it’s an entertaining mash up of magic, steampunk and Wild West historical. Magic caster and Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam Gillian Hamilton is sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona to apprehend a dangerous ‘mad-scientist’ engineer by the name of Milo Ferguson aka The Tinkerer, who is wanted for a number of illegal uses of steam energy and magic.  We’re plunged straight into the action as Gillian arrives in Shallow Grave and finds himself being shot at before he’s so much as identified himself. He’s surprised to find he has an ally in his skirmish with Ferguson, a handsome cowboy clad in all in black he later recognises as the mysterious vigilante gunslinger known only as Gunner the Deadly – who is also a wanted criminal.

Gunner and Gillian call a temporary truce and decide to work together to capture the Tinkerer, facing his deadly, gloriously bonkers inventions (steam-powered spider-legged Gatling guns! Massive armoured locomotives! Lightning bullets!) in some high-stakes action scenes that are cinematic in scope.  The world-building is solid with clear explanations of how magic works in this world, and of the hierarchical structure – although I suspect, given something Gillian discovers near the end, there is more to come on that score.

The author packs a lot of story and character development into this fast-paced novella.  Gillian is the PoV character, so Gunner is rather enigmatic, but he nonetheless has a considerable impact on Gillian’s outlook and the way he views his government job, making him see that perhaps there isn’t such a great gulf between them after all, and that they’re both operating in grey areas rather than in the starkness of black and white.

The characters are quirky and engaging, and the author creates a strong connection between them despite the short page count. Gillian is an extremely powerful magician, but is otherwise insecure and struggles with his sexuality, keeping himself apart and denying himself the solace of human touch so as not to engender rumours among his colleagues.  Gunner is a gorgeous and enigmatic bad-boy who turns out to be quite different to what Gillian expected, a kind of latter day Robin Hood who makes no bones about the fact that – “Sometimes bad men die when I do good. I don’t regret that.”  Meeting Gunner kicks Gillian’s libido into gear and once he realises his interest is returned he decides to go for it; they have great chemistry, and even though we don’t get into Gunner’s head, it’s clear that he’s rather smitten with Gillian as well, and that he sees beyond the reserved exterior to something of who he really is inside.

There are hints that there’s more to Gillian than meets the eye, and I’m intrigued to find out more about him and his considerable magical abilities. As this is an ongoing series, there’s no HEA in this book, but it ends on a firm HFN for Gillian and Gunner and the promise of more adventures to come.  The Engineer was a quick and absorbing read, and I’m looking forward to reading The Gangster, the next instalment in the series.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

A queen’s duty is never done.

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – A-

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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


This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.