Friday, April 18, 2014

Ashes & Alchemy (Gaslight Chronicles, #6) by Cindy Spencer Pape

Minerva Shaw is forced to race into the London night in desperation to find a doctor for her ill daughter Ivy.  Though her clothing is soaked through and she worries about how she will pay the doctor, Minerva knows that she cannot stop.  When in desperation, she passes out briefly at the door of Sebastian Brown, she has know idea that this faithful meeting is going to change her life forever.  Minerva and Sebastian quickly discover that Ivy, along with the other children who have gotten ill,  have been the victims of scientific experimentation.  As Minerva and Sebastian  two race to find the culprit, they find their own hearts racing as well.

Ashes & Alchemy is only 80 pages and therefore is a novella.  Unfortunately, this means a very rushed romance.  Sebastian and Minerva actually know each other for about 24 hours when they decide that what they feel for each other is love.  Sebastian proposes within 48 hours and they are married within three weeks.  That much time isn't even long enough to decide that one is in lust, let alone love.  They know absolutely nothing about each other and yet Sebastian is quick to share that he is a member of a super secret society, putting not only his life but the lives of his family and friends at risk.  Not to worry though, Minerva promises not to tell, honest. 

The problem with the brevity of this story is that Pape based it on new characters with a few familiar ones popping by for a cameo, leaving the reader with very little familiarity with the main characters.   The mystery is over before it even really begins and they don't really investigate but follow a lucky turn of phrase uttered by a young girl.  The so-called mystery is a ruse for the ridiculous love affair. 

To Pape's credit, Minerva has a strongly independent streak.  When Sebastian tries to encourage her to stay behind when they go after the villain, she is determined to be included.  She is a survivor of an attempted rape and even killed her would be rapist.  Given his history in the military, Sebastian is authoritarian in nature but he does not get away with that when it comes to Minerva; she is his match and more.  At least in the sense of class however, Sebastian does become her savior, because when they first meet, Minerva's flat is a crime scene and she is unemployed as a consequence of staying home to care for her daughter.  A life with Sebastian elevates Minerva's class status significantly.  In this way, the HAE is constructed to turn her into a fairy tale princess through the wiping away of all of her deprivations.  

Pape continues to have trouble with her marginalized characters in this series.  We are never introduced to Vidya but are told that she is Sebastian's dead fiance.  Vidya was the daughter of an official at the East India Company and it was of course an arranged marriage.  Sebastian didn't love her but was forced to marry her after he seduced him.  Of course the exotic woman of colour was the seductress, everyone knows that chastity is the preserve of the good White English ladies.  Vidya died many years ago, leaving Sebastian free to marry Minerva.  Sebastian did after all spend years angsting over his dead exotic sari wearing Indian love.  Yes, I'm rolling my eyes.   The next character doesn't even get a name but apparently it's fine for a woman of African descent to take on the role of Ivy's governess.

Thus far, Pape has also largely excluded GLBT characters. There is one reference in this novella:
The artist was next on his list, but proved to be an amiable young man sharing a flat with his "cousin," a euphemism for male lover.  Although that was technically illegal, Seb didn't care a whit ad chatted with both men.  Neither  radiated any significant interest in what Seb had to say or any dishonesty in their answers.
I suppose we should be grateful for one scant reference  in the Ashes & Alchemy considering that in the Gaslight Chronicles, there are probably less than a handful of reference.  Yes, homosexuality was illegal but that doesn't mean that GLBT people didn't have active lives and participate in society, though they were highly closeted. Pape has settled for tokenism instead of real inclusion and the time period of her novel does not excuse her. 

As I say in every review involving a romance novel in fairness to the author, I am not a fan of this genre in particular, so your mileage may vary. I have tried to give a fair listing of the issues as I see them.  I keep reading Pape because I like steampunk but there was very little of that in Ashes & Alchemy.  We were barely given a sense of time or setting and had I not been familiar with this series, I would have found it extremely lacking.   At eighty pages long, Ashes & Alchemy will help you pass a snowy afternoon but it won't really engage you, or leave you with anything memorable.