Title: The Girl in the Steel Corset
Author: Kady Cross
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Series: Steampunk Chronicles #1
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Steampunk. Oh, steampunk. Everyone talks about you but I honestly don't have a way of defining you the way that the true die-hard fans do. Sure, I know enough of you to generally tell when a book is actually steampunk versus steampunk-in-marketing-disguise, but that's not saying much. The Girl in the Steel Corset is the type of book that makes it very clear to readers like me that it is steampunk. Some of the aspects are probably 'meh' to hardcore fans of the genre, but they are certainly appealing to readers who may be unfamiliar with it. Corsets made of steel, modified with technological prowess? Alternative-Victorian technology? The Girl in the Steel Corset provides these and more, creating a plot and cast of characters that sweep the reader into another time, another world, another century. This was one of my most enjoyable YA reads this year for good reason.
Something about Finley Jayne is off. Completely, totally off. Working as a servant in a prominent London household hasn't broken her faith in humanity - at least, the labor hasn't. She's witnessed Lord Felix, the son of her employer and one of London's prime aristocracy, abuse women in the household one too many times. Finley Jayne is not a girl that will let evil present itself so vicariously without being reprimanded. Felix may be seen as a bit of a catch in society's terms, yet she cares not for his reputation when she sees the abuse he inflicts upon other female members of the staff. Nor does she care for his want to inflict that same abuse on her. Finley Jayne is strong - stronger than anyone may realize - and her temper will not allow Lord Felix to so much as lay a hand on her without fighting back. Finley Jayne thus finds herself in an awful predicament when she's seen as assaulting Lord Felix, even if it was in self defense.
Finley Jayne is now a girl on the run. Her seemingly inhuman strength is not elaborated on or fully realized by the members of society. All they truly know is that she accosted one of their own, even if his reputation wasn't the strongest. Finley Jayne gets rescued from discovery by Griffin King, another member of the aristocracy with his own secrets. He's a bit of an anomaly in and of himself, having several of his companions house with him at his lavish estate. He secludes himself from most of society. His only real appearances seem to be when he's riding his velocycle with his friend Sam, a boy who, after a terrible accident, had to be partially reconstructed with robotics by Emily, another friend of theirs whose genius is only surpassed by her secret love for Sam. It seems to be fate, almost, in that Griffin runs into a runway Finley Jayne as he rides his velocycle through London's streets.
The friendship is struck by the glow of gaslight, the sound of the cycle's engine, and the fear of being caught. Finley Jayne has never truly had friends. She's been too fearful of the darker side of herself coming to the surface. The inhuman strength and rage within her are beasts completely opposite of her normally quiet personality. Of course, Griffin meets her on one of the nights where her darker side comes out to play, and doesn't truly understand the internal war that Jayne's personalities seem to be waging. As Griffin and his group of awkward comrades takes in Finley Jayne, they begin to come in contact with a mysterious enemy known simply as The Machinist that Griffin has been investigating. They also come to the realization that fate's role in bringing them together may be greater than any of them imagined. An unexpected connection and new scientific discoveries lead them to amazing new revelations about who they are and why they seem to have developed abilities far beyond any normal human's capacity. The Girl in the Steel Corset takes alternative history to a whole new level with a dramatic romance, a puzzling mystery, and a steampunk London that is far darker than the original ever was.
The Girl in the Steel Corset is effectively a steampunk retelling of Doctor Jekyl and Mr. Hyde for the YA set. It's not entirely clear if that is the book's intention or if the classic story inspired the conflict surrounding Finley Jayne's characterization, but the parallels between Finley Jayne and the man/monster hybrid are constructed effectively. This is why Cross immediately endeared me to her character as well. She used the parallels to maximize on the feelings of noir that came with the steampunk London she created. Finley Jayne is a girl that is strong, first and foremost, regardless of whether or not she is under the influence of her darker-tempered personae. The beginning of the book shows a huge differentiation, though, between this personae and the kind, demure personae that Finley Jayne had to balance it. The interesting thing is that Cross begins to meld these personae as Finley Jayne grows into herself more and more. Finley Jayne starts showing her strength and her ability to step back from aggression with equality, using both qualities with more subtlety as time wears on in the narrative. Cross shows that the ideal nature of Finley Jayne as a protagonist is one that is balanced: a heroine that is neither a doormat nor someone too aggressive to be likable. It also makes sense because Finley Jayne is around a group of people that she begins to see as her equals. Emily, Sam, and Griffin become viable friends to Finley Jayne and show her that she doesn't have to suppress one part of her personality to the point where the other is an explosive waiting to go off at the slightest provocation. Readers will easily take to Finley Jayne because of how strong her personalities are and how she learns to control them. Not only is it a parallel of classic literature, but it's a pretty darn good parallel of what the teenage years are like on the whole - that being an experience and struggle in balancing one's emotions in a way to get the best type of social experiences out of them.
What surprised me most was just how much Cross got into her side characters. While their stories were not as immediately compelling as the mystery behind Finley Jayne, there was a lot of good going on in terms of her romantic tension with Griffin and the subplot with Sam and Emily. Griffin as a hero is dashing, debonair, and just a tiny bit dark without being overly so. He's an appealing male hero because he's strong and heroic without overpowering Finley Jayne's own strength. Never once did Cross sacrifice her characterization in order to amp up Griffin's viability as a hero. There's also something to be said for the way Cross shows his charity and kindness. She doesn't exemplify him as a saint, yet Griffin shows himself to be a good soul time and time again without losing his exciting edge. The romantic tension that comes between him and Finley Jayne is also pretty grand. There's something about this pairing that gets my memory sensors on high alert. Cross also introduced a bit of a love triangle of sorts, though she did so to enhance the reader's understanding of the differences in Finley Jayne's personae. Jack Dandy, a ruthless character that fits the very definition of 'seedy', is the other half of the triangle and poses an interesting challenge to Griffin's awesome. While Jack Dandy is obviously not the hero material that Finley Jayne needs, he provides and interesting addition to the romantic tension with his ability to cause Finley to question herself and who she really is. He also isn't entirely evil, being the type of character that is a selective villain. It makes him dangerous but also human. The romance is not the only place that the background of Cross's adult writing shows, too.
The general background of Cross as a writer (from what little knowledge I have of her) is that she wrote primarily urban fantasy/paranormal romance. I'm not entirely sure which of the two genres was her focus, but the general hallmark of both genres is that they contain strong character arcs, especially if using a series format. The romance was obviously a strength of Cross's, though it won't appeal to readers who don't read for romance. The subplot with Emily and Sam, also a romance, is just as much a strength that is reminiscent of this authorial background. Not only does it have its own amount of depth as an exploration of the tension in a relationship between two people who love each other - fueled by the fact that Emily had to make Sam part-machine to keep him alive, even though Sam resents machines because of what they did to his body. This is mainly a romantic relationship, yet it also serves as a great foil to the relationship between Griffin and Finley Jayne. Both Emma and Sam are much more grounded characters than Griffin and Finley. While Griffin and Finley are constantly moving and embroiled in their issues that come from outside sources, Emily and Sam are struggling to find romantic footing with each other on a much more basic level. They're struggling with love and friendship that has already been growing for years, trying to get past the feelings of mistrust that have come with their problems. It was also great that Emily was an intelligent female secondary character. Yes, she is a stereotyped 'brainiac' in some senses, but I have a major weakness for female characters that are extremely intelligent and take pride in their intelligence. Cross apparently does as well, and readers will love Emily and how Sam balances her out with his sensibility and stubbornness.
The Girl in the Steel Corset relies on the fascinating steampunk-style London to sell itself to readers from a concept perspective, and Kady Cross does an excellent job of showcasing this concept with her writing. She incorporates a lot of 'standards' for steampunk books these days: fashion items like the title garment, for instance, and gaslamps. Oh, the gaslamps. Cross also introduces some really cool scientific concepts that are major points of the plot (though the title steel corset is important, too, along with being a fashion item). Said plot points would most likely be spoilers, but they are interesting from an idea perspective and make the science, paranormal, and steampunk elements married to each other as opposed to being simple window dressings to the romantic tension and the mystery of it all. Cross also includes a lot of machination and clockwork into the story, and it actually works very much in her favor. It's a lot of elements to introduce, but they never felt tacked on for authenticity's sake or stupid. They just felt fun. And Cross has a writing style that very much shows her writing roots - and why she can successfully write YA novels along with adult novels. She uses a third person narrative style that is more common in romance and urban fantasy, yet she stays true to the teenage emotions at the core of the story. It's dramatic and high-tension, yet she doesn't dumb down any of the aspects of her writing in order to appeal to the teen audience. She focuses on the good parts and just tells a story that happens to involve teenage characters doing some very extraordinary things. It also shows what I've come to expect from the publisher, which is a strong narrative voice that feels definitive to the particular author. Cross is a seasoned author and it shows in the way this story commands the reader's attention. The pacing is strong and nothing in it feels like fluff orchestrated to keep the reader busy for several pages. One complaint does involve the ending - it's a very obvious setup for the next book that involves a secondary character by the name of Jasper that runs into some trouble at the end of The Girl in the Steel Corset. What annoyed me was that The Girl in the Steel Corset would have felt like a much more enriching read at the end if Cross didn't so obviously tell the reader "Don't forget that this is a series and that I want you to read on." Series books shouldn't be so reliant on each other, especially in today's publishing world when a traditionally published series may not last very long. It could have been done better, and it soured my like of the ending some.
Is The Girl in the Steel Corset a book with some flaws? Based on that ending, I'd say so. Yet this book has stood out to me as one of the most fun books that I've read this year. It has a great concept, great writing, and a solid cast of characters with engaging levels of characterization. Cross knows how to create an atmosphere and a storyline that gets the reader invested. This book was a read that went by fast, and it immediately had me wanting to spend more time in the world. Readers who dislike steampunk and/or strong romantic arcs will probably find this experience less appealing, although the mystery and action are well-represented. I, however, read for a very different set of things in a narrative, and The Girl in the Steel Corset hit all of the right notes.
Cover: Sigh. This cover is gorgeous. One of the best examples of a YA dress cover. It feels appropriate because it's an alternative historical work, and the model's facial expression and locket just scream of a heroine that is more than meets the eye.
Rating: 5.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Natashya and Harlequin Teen!)