Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross [Review]

I started reading this book with high hopes: The advance reviews had been positive and I’m always anxious to read new Steampunk young adult fiction.  It helps that this author released a short story prior to this book that established the main character of this novel in an exciting way.  But after reading the whole story I find that there are some world building issues that lend a schizophrenic quality to this book that the narrative never able to rise above.  The novel is just too derivative: even the author describes her book as an attempt to combine League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the X-Men!  This was the flaw I couldn’t get past:  Cross draws on so many existing stories that her unique narrative gets lost and diminished to the point where I wonder where her original story is.  The resulting mixture lacks world building, contains a number of clichéd love triangles, and includes the inexplicable use of hyper-advanced technology for a Victorian world.
The story revolves around Finley Jayne, a young woman who is employed as a maid in a noble household.  Ever since her employment she has been warned by the other maids to steer clear of the son of the house, who preys on the female servants.  Predictably, Finley is caught alone in the hallway late one night, and she is forced to defend herself from a brutal attack by allowing her ‘darker side’ to take over and fight off the villainous advances of the young lord.  Her mysterious and violent darker side, however, takes no prisoners, and serious physical damage is done, so much so that Finley knows she won’t be able to explain it later, so she flees into the night.  While on this wild flight the young woman runs into another young lord on—wait for it—a velocycle.  Yes, a steam-powered motorcycle analog that races about London at high speeds.  Yes, the same London that is crowded with much slower-moving horse-drawn carriages during this time period.  But I digress.
Griffin King is the eighteen year-old Duke of Greythorne and he feels terrible that he just mowed down this young woman with his high-powered machine, but he also senses that there is something more to her, so he insists on taking her home with him to his mansion in Mayfair.  It helps that Griffin is the leader of a team of young ‘supers’: Griffin can access the ‘aether,’ his best friend Samuel Morgan is superhumanly strong, and teammate Emily O’Brien is a sixteen year-old super genius who is always inventing new gadgets.  Added to the mix is Griffin’s young aunt and guardian Cordelia, the telepathic Marchioness of Marsden, and Jasper Renn, the hyper-fast and mysterious teenaged American cowboy, and the result is a team that works directly for Queen Victoria and charged with keeping the United Kingdom safe from the things that go bump in the night. Griffin’s experience with this group of young people tells him that there is more to Finley, and he immediately recruits her to help with solving a mysterious series of thefts that are a potential threat to the British monarchy.
But Finley has two personalities, and her darker side is determined to take over and finish what she started in her previous place of employment. The lord who attacked her, Felix August-Raynes, has the facial piercing that marks him as a follower of Jack Dandy, the young crime lord who controls London’s underground, and Finley’s other half wants to make sure that Dandy is aware of the attack and the behavior that prompted her response.   She dresses like she’s in The Matrix in short trousers, tall boots, and a black duster, and jumps on the chrome-covered velocycle (for which she has absolutely zero training) and zips off into the night to find Dandy. [On a side note, I had a lot of trouble with the ridiculous clothes the girls wear, which have more to do with a Steampunk convention than the Victorian period this book is set in, but there are bigger fish to fry than the wardrobe, so I’ll limit myself to this one sentence.]
The Jack Dandy Finley meets is a knee-meltingly gorgeous and bold twenty-one year-old who seems deeply intrigued by the young woman who has invaded his territory.  Dandy and Finley flirt back and forth…uh, verbally spar,  until he learns of the attack on her delectable person, and then he changes, his cockney accent disappearing and his dark personality emerging long enough to soulfully promise her that the problem will be taken care of.  Oh, and if she ever needs a safe place, his door is always open to her, yes, delectable person. Cue the Griffin-Finley-Jack love triangle and a moderate gag reflex at the sweetness of it all!
Finley returns to the Greythorne estate to discover that no one except Griffin trusts her now because of her erratic and unpredictable behavior.  To further complicate matters, Cordelia has returned from a mission elsewhere to identify Finley as the daughter of one of the members of an expedition to the center of the earth led by Griffin’s parents two decades prior.  Finley Jayne is really Finley Jane Sheppard, and she is the daughter of the original Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.  Her father’s transformation was possible because the expedition discovered a substance they called Organites, which they found “emit[ ] energy that [can] be used to power anything from one machine to an entire household.”  Further, Thomas Sheppard learned that the Organites could “attach themselves to the human tissue and cop[y] its composition, so that when applied to [a] wound, they work[ ] to rebuild flesh and heal[ ] injury…without even the tiniest scar,” and he decided to experiment on himself using a compound he created, which split his personality (27).  Thomas dies when Finley is an infant, so he never learns that he had altered his DNA so profoundly that his child inherited her split personality as a genetic mutation.  But his wife knew there was a problem, and she hid Finley by changing her identity and then getting remarried.  
But this is only one story in which every character has a complicated backstory and, rather than using allusion and promising a larger exploration later, Cross tries to include all of these backstories.  For example, Cordelia was part of the original King exploration that discovered the Organites, and she has many insights she is reluctant to share.  This in itself is enough for this first book, but then there is the additional story that includes her husband’s disappearance six years prior, and how she wears a chain from nose to ear for every year he has been missing while she continues to travel throughout the world in search for him. There’s a lot of facial piercing in this novel, and it is pointed out in the narrative at every opportunity. 
Another love triangle is introduced through Sam-Emily-Jasper.  Emily’s past is mysterious, but she is also connected to the Griffin family expedition, and it is somehow responsible for her super intelligence. Sam is fatally injured in a battle that occurs prior to the start of the book and Emily replaces much of his anatomy, including his heart and an arm, with mechanical parts and metal reinforcement. Sam struggles with the knowledge that so much of him is now metal, and he spends a great deal of the book slamming doors and generally being whiny because his friends loved him so much that they went to extreme lengths to save him.  This is one of the silliest plot elements, because the formerly trustworthy and secretive Sam becomes incapable of keeping secrets—with disastrous consequences.  But wait, there’s more!  American Jasper Renn is as mysterious as Emily, but his super speed is also derivative of exposure to the Organites.  Further, he is has travelled to England to escape some unknown trouble with the law in the states.  Just in case the reader has any doubts about who the intended audience for this book is, there are so many boys, so little time. 
And speaking of love interests, Griffin seems to know the most about the Organites and is the one who encourages research into how his team has been changed into ‘meta-humans’ by their exposure.  He also doesn’t admit to his friends his lack of knowledge about the limits of his powers or how dangerous he can be if he loses control of all the energy he harnesses. He is the Professor X of the team, and the ‘aether’ he’s working with is a magic smoke that conveniently seems to be whatever he needs it to be.   
Then, somewhere over two-hundred pages into the story, the reader is finally given some information about the villain who has been mentioned throughout like an afterthought.  The Machinist has been stealing random items and now the mystery is to figure out why and to what end.  The Machinist seems to know a great deal about the team and their vulnerabilities, which keeps him a step ahead of the team as they race all over London to figure out his evil plot.  Who is he, what is his nefarious goal, and will the team be able to stick together long enough to keep him from getting it?
Just to be clear, I don’t have a problem with the League/X-men mash up per se, but I do have a problem with the general mess that results when additional stories are blended in, like Frankenstein, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and even the major plot of Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective (which, coincidentally, is also set in London circa 1897).  Yes, this book is a work of steampunk and meant to be anachronistic, and I’m prepared to accept science and gadgets that are advanced in a retro-futuristic manner.  I’m just not as convinced by the attempt to shoehorn a number of modern pop-culture references into a single, fictional story set in historical Victorian London.  My ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy the novel is compromised by the sense that I’ve heard this story before married with my disappointment over the frenetic character development.  This narrative lacks the elegance and excitement the novella prequel inspired, and Cross’ originality suffers through the attempts to connect a significant number of established science fiction elements into a novel that has been announced as the first in a series.
There is so much going on in this story that it feels like a bit of a hot mess, especially when it comes to the technology.  Yes, technology is, and should be, a central motif in steampunk, but articulated, fully functional prosthetics that behave like cybernetic devices? Sam’s artificial arm is covered in skin created by the Organites and, like his artificial heart, doesn’t require external power of any kind and is accepted by his body with no signs of rejection. Then there’s the ‘personal telegraph machine’ each of the members of the team carry: This device is described as a “flat machine smaller than a deck of playing cards…all the rage now for fast communication” on which what sounds like a lot like text messages can be sent and received wirelessly (21).  This explanation sounds like the answer a steampunk would give when chided at a convention for using their cell phone in public. 
Similarly, Griffin owns an Aether machine, which is the “perfect receptacle for Aetheric images…[that] also double[s] as an analytical engine and…[i]s connected through telegraph and telephone lines, sharing important and often coded political information” (107).  This device has a connected printer to copy articles and pictures he finds on what sounds a great deal like the internet.  Rather than attempt to describe or invoke new devices, it appears that Cross has simply inserted modern machines and devices, like the velocycle, and then tried to describe them using Victorian terms.  There’s even a scene where Emily brings in a camera on a tripod to photograph Finley the camera has an internal system by which it can develop the print.  I just couldn’t see how, even with the discovery of Organites, all this sophisticated and advanced technology came to be, and it felt contrived and overblown within the Victorian setting. 
I’m also not a fan of the kind of attraction Finley has for Griffin King and Jack Dandy, even though both of these young men are compelling.  Though one is supposedly “good” and the other “the bad boy,” both come across as having hearts of gold and willing to do anything for Finley.  Dandy, especially, should have been more complex and ambiguous: he is the lord of the London underground and yet there is never anything to explain how he achieved this status or how he manages to hold on to it.  He basically tells Finley that he likes her so much he’ll “play her game,” even though he believes he is destined to lose her affection to Griffin.  Finley’s attraction to these young men, however, is predicated on how dangerous they can be: Griffin is a “young man capable of many dangerous things” (76) and Finley recognizes that [s]he might have the strength to harm [Dandy], but he wouldn’t go down easily, and she might not survive the altercation…and as with Griffin, this elevated Dandy in her estimation” (95).  I find myself, ‘dark side’ or not, more than slightly horrified that she is torn between two young men because knows she can’t beat them up.
I’m always saying that I believe young readers are intelligent and deserve well-written stories and, as far as that goes, this one isn’t that original, but it isn’t horrible.  It kept my interest from beginning to end, and it has a good cliffhanger to lead into the next book in the series, which I will likely buy and read.  But I found this book lacks the magic that helps a story transcend being merely good to become great, and I feel like the biggest problem overall is the inadequate focus of the narrative.  Kady Cross has a lot of ideas, and she seems determined to put them all into this one story, and the result is a novel with so many plot lines that none of them rise to the surface and shine.  I’m hoping that now that some of these stories have been introduced the next novel will spend more time with developing characters and a tight plot and less time with introducing gadgets and transparent plot developments.   

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