Friday, February 6, 2015

Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1) by Bec McMaster

After her father's death, Honoria has fallen on hard times.  Struggling to survive and escape the bounty on their heads, the family moves to Whitechapel district.  Gone are the extravagances and each day is a struggle to survive, as Honoria starves herself in order to ensure that her younger siblings have enough to eat and walks hours to and from work.  Honoria uses her education to teach at a girls finishing school but when she loses her job and her hope, Honoria is forced to turn to the one person she never thought she would ask for help, Blade - the master of the rookeries.  Unfortunately for Honoria the price of his aid is to become a thrall.  Though no one in the rookeries will challenge Blade's authority that will not keep Honoria safe from the Blue Bloods who seek her death.  Even Blade is finding himself having difficult keeping his control around Honeria.

Though this book is advertised as a steampunk, it is far more of a historical romance than a steampunk.  There are small elements like metaljackets and little robots who served tea but beyond that, Kiss of Steel is devoid of steampunk elements.  McMaster did however include an interesting origin story for vampires and the world also included a werewolf.  Kiss of Steel essentially focused on the budding romance between Blade and Honoria, while squeezing in some political intrigue to claim a plot. 

As protagonists go, Honoria is strong and never takes the opportunity to run away when those she cares about are facing danger.  She is well educated and stubborn to a fault.  Blade does use his physical strength and superior speed to bully Honoria; however, not to be outdone, Honoria does drug Blade and even pulls a gun on him.  These should be moments to celebrate but they only lead to Blade once again getting the upper hand forcing Honoria to comply to situations that she is not comfortable with.  

There were several other female side characters of note.  The Duchess of Casavian was made a blue blood simply because there were no male heirs and her ascension dropped her family's rank.  Clearly aware of this The Duchess has to be a strong character and seems to be playing the long game.  Unfortunately, we don't really get to know a lot about her.  Then we have the Queen who plays second to the Queen Consort.  Throughout the novel we are told that she has been reduced to a figure head status.  When she is finally introduced, her one act is to defy her husband publicly.  It's clear however that the queen lives in fear of her consort. Then there is Esme, who is one of Blade's thralls. Blade clearly sees her as family and the feeling is returned. Esme runs the house and is not afraid to put Blade in his place, or advise him.  Finally, we come to Lena who is just fourteen and yet somehow manages to advise Honoria on her love life.  Lena is a realist and like her sister is quite bullheaded.  

For all of the strong female characters we still had the problem of Blade's dead sister.  She doesn't really have a role in the book except to give Blade something to angst about.  It's yet another trope (think Supernatural).  A dead woman to build the character of a male character as well of course as to establish the villainous nature of another. 

Kiss of Steel is not a book a reader can enjoy unless there is a significant investment in the romance between Blade and Honoria.  Unfortunately, the relationship has problems from the very start.  Honoria lives in Blade's territory and she does not pay for protection or pay any sort of tribute and so Blade sends someone to demand her presence.  He is of course immediately attracted to her and seeks to weasel his way into her life, forcing himself upon her.
His firm, callused hands found her breasts, cupping them through the scratchy wool. Her eyes nearly rolled back in her head.
“Stop,” she whispered. But his hand was sliding down over the flat of her stomach, lower, bunching through the folds of material at her waist and lower…She caught it, her nipples aching through the constricting wool. “We can’t do this. Please stop.”

“You want it. I want it—”

“I don’t want it,” she shot back, then gasped as his fingers brushed teasingly against the juncture of her thighs.

“Don’t you?” His other hand cupped the full weight of her breast. “There’s no one here to see,” he said in that dark, compelling voice. “I’d hear them coming.” His fingers bunched in the folds of her skirt. “Honor. My Honor.” It came out with his breath. “I want to taste you. I want to drink you all up.”

Honoria shot a helpless look toward the building. She had to find some way to placate the hunger ruling him (page 133)
Every time Honoria says no to a sexual interaction, Blade continues to force himself on her.  Possibly to avoid the appearance of rape, McMaster has Honoria inform the reader how aroused she is becoming and how she really doesn't want Blade to stop even as she tells him no.  This is a ridiculous writers device to get around the fact that consent is something the male protagonist is willing to ignore because he somehow magically know that the female love interest's no doesn't really mean no.  It's a classic example of the overly permissive rape culture that we live in.  Kiss of Steel is filled with multiple instances of Honoria saying no and Blade pushing past her boundaries.

It is further complicated by the fact that because of his vampirism, Blade turns beastly.  Honoria then has to be careful in how she interacts with him to avoid getting hurt.  If this looks familiar, it's because this is yet another common trope though most often in the genre, it is applied to werewolves.  A woman shouldn't have to be docile, or talk a man down from hurting her or anyone around him because of woo woo reasons.

In terms of LGBT characters we had some rather ambiguous interactions from Will there werewolf whom Blade saved from a cage after he was sold by his mother.   When Blade feeds off of anyone, they experience a sexual response.  This is described as problematic when it comes to Will.  
Will groaned again, and this time there was no mistaking the sound.  He was enjoying this. Honoria glanced up. A mistake. For Blade was staring at her, his mouth locked against Will’s throat, his hand fisted in the shaggy hair and the other arm wrapped around the man, clutching him hard.
Will’s palms splayed over the pitted brick wall and his hips moved almost involuntarily. Small, harsh breaths broke the still night. She couldn’t look away. It was horrible…and fascinating.And for a moment she wanted it to be her. (page 95)
We know that Will is not immune to getting sexually excited over feeding Blade. In fact, both men end up with erections and Will thrusts his at Blade during the feeding.  The problem of course is that this is all woo woo inspired and Blade clearly is heterosexual.
And then, of course, there’d been that confusion two years ago when the two men had agreed to the feedings. Will was a young male in his prime with few sexual escapades, if any. The feeding took him hard, stirring his body to feel things that he might otherwise not have been inclined to. It had taken Blade awhile to realize what was behind the sudden way his lieutenant couldn’t meet his gaze anymore. And then that disastrous evening when Will had reached for him and broken all the rules.
They’d sorted it out. So it was with a gentle hand that he caught Will’s grip and eased it off him. (pg 123)
Okay, so have Will clearly having sexual feelings for Blade but having simultaneously justified as well as explained away by the woo woo. Is Will bisexual or gay?  Take your best because I really haven't got a clue. His sexual orientation unlike any of the other characters in the book is not at all clear.

Complicating the nature of Will's interactions with Blade is Will's serious dislike Honoria,  "Blade knew why his lieutenant showed such dislike.  Will despised most women or avoided them entirely.  After his mother had sold him for five pounds, he's vowed them all to the devil." What we have is a good reason for Will to have anger towards his mother but it is certainly doesn't justify for his misogyny. So, this makes Will a man who has a history of being abused, who may potentially be gay or bisexual and hates women. Yes, start marking your bingo cards because this is most certainly a problem. 
There really are no POC to speak of in this series whatsoever.
I know that I have written a lot about what McMaster didn't get right and so I thought I should share what she did extremely well.  Kiss of Steel has an excellent class analysis.  Honoria moves from her solidly middle class existence to one of poverty.   She can no longer take anything for granted and quickly learns that one bad thing can set one on a downward spiral that no matter how much one scrimps and saves, one cannot get out of.  
"How quickly she had become so mercenary.  A year ago she'd looked down upon such women as sold themselves on the streets. Now she was no better than they.  Hunger and poverty could drive a person to abandon all of their morals." (page 78)
When one is poor, subsistence is a daily battle.  It means going without sleep, working long hours and eschewing all manner of luxuries that the rich or middle class take for granted. Every penny must be stretched to its maximum and still one comes up short as Honoria quickly learns. Being well read and having fine manners, don't food on the table.  The elements of class analysis were the best parts of Kiss of Steel.

I went into Kiss of Steel expecting a paranormal steampunk and what I got was a historical romance, with small elements of the fantastical thrown in.  I suppose, the cover should have given away what I was getting myself into. I did like that vampirism was not romanticized and had a unique origin story. As much as vampirism extends one's life, it's also a curse which will lead to a complete loss of control and self and ultimately destruction.  The fact that there is potentially a scientific cure for vampirism added an intriguing element to the story and hope that it is explored in the next book. 

I was not overly impressed with the relationship between Honoria and Blade largely because of the imbalance in power and the whole rape seduction nonsense.  Kiss of Steel just felt short of living up to the world that McMaster created because of the focus on the relationship rather than more extensive world and character building.  Now that Honoria and Blade have declared their undying true love I can only hope that McMaster will enlarge her world and give us the steampunk which the series is supposed to be about.