Thursday, October 4, 2018

Dead Handsome (Buffalo Steampunk #1) by Laura Strickland

Clara has a gift - she can raise the dead. It’s not a talent she uses often - but when she needs a husband to keep her home and protect the children she keeps safe she can think of no other way to get a man quickly

Though he turns out to be far less pliable than she imagined.

Steampunk! Sign me up

Steampunk with magic! Sign me up twice! I do so love a paranormal steampunk.

This is a moderately low-key steampunk and magical setting though. The central premise is that Clara does have the power to raise the dead. And I can see you looking at me now and questioning how “low key magic” and “resurrection and necromancy” can actually co-exist - but this, so far, seems to be the sum total of the magic of this book. Clara doesn’t have an army of zombies in the basement, but she can raise the recently dead so long as they’re not too beat up. And she uses this ability, for the first time, on Liam - because she needs a man. But after that she doesn’t use it much nor does she have other magic to fall back on to help her in her hour of need. The battle instead rests far more on the limited resources they have at their disposal with a lot of that limited by the prejudices and injustices of the world and time they live in

Clara has turned her house into a haven for the dispossessed. Most of them are children- abused by parents or employers, poor, injured and disabled from industrial accidents and generally desperate in a time when there’s no support and no care for the weakest and most vulnerable in society - including child labourers and the extremely lethal factories that were so common in the Industrial revolution. We also have Georgina, a Black woman and a former slave who has also joined the household - who is clever, honest, tough and deeply valued by Clara. She also has a whole side storyline of her romance with Clara’s lawyer and the whole scandal of that atr the time

Liam himself is Irish and is considered both inherently criminal and utterly disposable by many of the wealthy and powerful characters in this book.

The central conflict of the book - trying to fulfil the legal requirements to keep the house feels a little… odd. I mean the terms her grandfather set is that she has to be married by the age of 21 or she is evicted. Granddad clearly wants this and will maliciously pursue kicking her out… but… why? I mean, why set the condition in the first place? Why even stick to these conditions? I want to see these legal papers that the grandfather has signed that legally compel him to give a house AND annual income to his granddaughter which he doesn’t have the power to just tear up and declare “nah”. And if he was so against his daughter’s husband and his granddaughter, why even give them anything at all? If it’s social status and a fear of being seen kicking his family out onto the street, why doesn’t he fear this still? I mean, in these sexist times, a wealthy patriarchy kicking his unmarried 21 year old granddaughter into the street doesn’t exactly look good either.

Still running with it isn’t hard and it’s still fun if you don’t dwell on that which isn’t hard as it isn’t overly that central. The internal logic of the McGuffin doesn’t matter so much as the journey

An element I just can’t get past is the examination of Clara’s morality. It’s very good that we have this moral hand wringing from Clara about whether she is a terrible person in how she decided to use Liam for her own well being. Treating him as a blank slate because she needed him to keep her home rather than viewing him as a person or considering whether he has any kind of history at all. I mean this is all extremely good debate and we see Clara repeatedly make some really difficult decisions as she considers the easiest path that would save them all but be morally reprehensible. There’s one thing she doesn’t consider

She has sex with him

I mean, after she resurrects a child she sees that child feel compelled to come to her, to hold her and is clearly mystically attached to her. She realises that maybe Liam is mystically attached to her rather than feeling genuine love or attraction towards her. This seems to be reinforced by Liam’s insistence that he normally wouldn’t find women who look like Clara attractive and she’s definitely not his type - despite that he feels sexually compelled even obsessed by her over all others including women who far closer fit the body types he found attractive. But the response of Clara to this is to despair that LIAM DOESN’T REALLY LOVE HER and she’s all ugly and unloveable… while my concern is “you’re magically raping this man.” It is really hard to swallow that Clara is worried she may be evil because of how she is using Liam, while nightly having lots of sex with the man and not worrying about how she is coercing him into this. Even worse when she makes this repeated potential sexual assault about her self-esteem issues. It’s a really glaring that this is ignored and makes it really hard to run with Clara’s very real self-esteem issues because it’s just cringeworthy to watch Clara seeking reassurance from the man she may be sexually molesting to assure her he actually finds her beautiful he actually loves her. It grossly undermines the central relationship which is the cornerstone of this entire book. That’s… an issue.

This is the focus of this book. The characters are fighting to keep the house and there is also a developing question to figure out who killed Liam and why. All of these make good storylines, fun storylines and we definitely have an action filled finale I never predicted but was absolutely excellent. But the central premise of this book is the relationship between Liam and Clara. She expected a memory-less easily manipulated blank slate of a man - and got Liam. Yes he was a blank slate but far from easily manipulated. He’s strong willed and while he has no memory - he still has a past. Including a family.

The conflict of them discovering their relationship, building it, knowing what connection they have building respect and love and a mutual dedication to each other and the household then followed by conflict over what the right thing to do is when those old ties from Liam’s life appear - and they’re torn between what they love and what they should do along with their obligations to the inhabitants of the house and Liam’s own drive for revenge/justice over his murder all threatening their relationship

If it weren’t for that central issue I would really love this (especially with the steampunk elements, the action packed finale) but that issue sabotages what is the central point of this book. Alongside of that there is a more minor issue of.. Convenience. Liam seems surprisingly casual with the whole coming back from the dead thing and joins Clara’s household awfully happily and the ending of the main obstacle to their marriage is just awfully convenient. Still those are minor issues which would normally have me happily giving this book higher marks… but for that central issue.