The Girl in the Steel Corset
$17.99, hardcover, 480 pages
Also available as an ebook ($14.99)
Release date: May 31, 2011
A teenager with Jekyll and Hyde personalities. A young duke with mystical powers. A girl genius who can speak to machines. A rough-and-tumble boy with a heart and bones of metal. All joined together to thwart a plot against Queen Victoria.
The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross is set in a steampunk version of Victorian England. For readers not familiar with the steampunk genre, it (typically) refers to a world in which steam power is the main source of energy but more modern technology is available. In Cross’ world, this means pocket-size telegraphs, clockwork robots as servants and steam-powered motorcycles.
This young-adult romance novel centers on Finley Jayne, the Jekyll-Hyde character. She never knew her father, whose scientific experiments passed on his genetic quirks to his daughter. Now, her blood teeming with Organites (organic nanobots that can heal), she struggles to accept the second personality inside her.
A chance encounter brings her to the attention of Griffin King, a young duke with powers and secrets of his own. King can access the Aether, a mystical energy from the spirit world. When the story starts, King has already gathered teens with other abilities and set up a sort of investigative service, continuing his parents’ work.
The adventure story follows the teens as they investigate a series of thefts orchestrated by a man calling himself The Machinist. His talent is creating automatons with sufficient strength to kill a man along with a few other secrets.
As part of the Harlequin family, a romance is expected. Griffin helps Finley as she tries to meld her personalities without losing herself. Naturally, the two are drawn to each other, despite the complications of Finley’s attraction to Jack Dandy, a mysterious underworld figure who is equally drawn to Finley. This triangle is a weaker part of the story, in part because Finley is the weakest character. Her motivations are unclear at times, and she is more likely to accept what others are telling her despite descriptions of being a strong character. Why Griffin and Dandy are drawn to her is muddy: that she’s the female lead is the best explanation.
Better portrayed is the relationship between two secondary characters, Sam and Emily. Sam’s powers lie in his strength and the fact that Emily, an engineering whiz, was able to save his life by replacing his heart and several bones with metal. All of this happens before The Girl in the Steel Corset begins. Sam’s discovery of his cybernetic parts threatens to destroy his friendship with Emily before it can blossom into love.
Sam and Emily, along with Griffin and the other characters, come across as more real than Finley. Although the reader is dropped into what feels like the middle of an ongoing series (the book is actually the first in The Steampunk Chronicles), Cross’ descriptions of these characters and their actions in the opening chapters give the reader a quick sketch of who these people are. Would Finley have as much beneath her skin.
As the group finds more clues about The Machinist’s plans, the reader quickly puts together the plot before the characters do. Some of the clues are obvious, and it’s hard to accept some of supposedly brilliant characters take longer to reach the same conclusions. The plot plays out largely as expected, but the pacing is good and there’s some fun to be had in seeing how it all plays out.
In an afterword, Cross says she “wanted to write League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets teen X-Men.” She falls a short a bit. It’s not Alan Moore’s League she emulates as much as something between Moore’s graphic novels and the maligned film. The steampunk elements are done well. Cross’ inventions are machines that fit well into Victorian London. The abilities of the teens could have used some more explanation or background. Finley is the only one who’s discovering what she is for the first time. The others’ abilities change slightly through the book, but they don’t seem surprised and have already accepted their differences. If Cross had spent more time detailing how Griffin, Sam and Emily adapted to their abilities or discovered them, the reader’s relationship with these characters would only have been strengthened.
For all its faults though, The Girl in the Steel Corset is entertaining and enjoyable. Most of the characters create an impression and show promise for future books in the series.