**Copy provided by publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
My name is Cherry St. Croix. Society would claim that I am a well-heeled miss with an unfortunate familial reputation. They’ve no idea of the truth of it. In my secret world, I hunt down vagrants, thieves . . . and now, a murderer. For a monster stalks London’s streets, leaving a trail of mystery and murder below the fog.
Eager for coin to fuel my infatuations, I must decide where my attentions will turn: to my daylight world, where my scientific mind sets me apart from respectable Society, or to the compelling domain of London below. Each has a man who has claimed my time as his–for good or for ill. Though as the corpses pile, and the treacherous waters of Society gossip churn, I am learning that each also has its dangers. One choice will see me cast from polite company . . . the other might just see me dead.
My name is Cherry St. Croix. I am a collector, one of the many who are employed to acquire, kill or investigate for bounties. My rules are simple: I don’t collect children, and I don’t murder for coin. Truth be told, I’ve never killed for any reason.
I liked this book. I liked it a lot. From the unique setting of a London above and a London below, to a heroine that is complex and problematic, Tarnished has some very unique qualities that set it apart and make me interested in what happens next to its main protagonist, Cherry St. Croix.
The world Cooper created here is fantastic. This is a steampunk Victorian London where the city is divided in two – London above and London below. Due to industrial development, the polluting fog created by factories became a nuisance to London’s wealthy. The answer? Build a London above the fog, or the drift, so that those with money could live above it all. A city built on stilts and flying machines that travel in between is the London in the world of Tarnished. And there is definitely a difference between the two – above is wealth and privilege; below is poverty, thick pollution and crime. This world is so richly imagined that it wasn’t hard to picture it as I was reading.
There is also a definite social, and, it seems, racial divide. The rich above, the poor below; white above and color below. It makes me wonder if Cooper plans on exploring this racial divide in future installments as several of the characters here are people of color and they seem to play important roles in Cherry’s life below. Although those roles are a bit stereotypical, I do hope future installments add some depth to them. However, I appreciate the multicultural feel in Tarnished that you don’t often get in other books in the genre.
Cherry St. Croix is also a complicated heroine. She’s an orphan whose parents died tragically and mysteriously; her childhood was rough and fueled by opium which has led to a lingering addiction; she has a mysterious absent guardian she rarely sees yet fears as he controls her inheritance. This forces her to maintain the façade of the perfect mannered lady. You see, Cherry straddles two worlds. In one, she is the wealthy young woman hovering on the outskirts of polite society. In the other, she has a life fueled by opium and adventure. She works as a collector (kind of like a bounty hunter) for the likes of the Karakash Veil, the organized Chinese crime syndicate that basically runs London below the drift. Cherry enters into this dangerous profession because she has expensive habits – opium and science. She likes to dabble in inventions. And she needs opium to sleep.
I loved how Cherry was very much of these two worlds. She enjoys the comfort of her wealth in the London above but fits into the dangerous world of the London below. The fact that she so obviously has a drug problem was also an added layer to a unique and flawed heroine. Cooper also hits the perfect notes with Cherry’s voice in that she gets that “period” feel without it seeming forced or inauthentic.
One issue I do have is that while Cherry says she dabbles in science and inventions, you don’t actually see any of that. These activities are what supposedly eat up her monthly stipend but other than the goggles and special corset she wears below the drift, I don’t understand what else she’s created. What other experiments has she done? It seemed that the money she earns as a collector is really to pay for an opium habit though I’m not sure that’s what the author intended us to believe.
There is also the beginning of a love triangle. Both of Cherry’s choices are definitely interesting and both represent the two worlds she has a solid foot in – Lord Compton, the son of a wealthy society family, versus Micajah Hawke, the ringmaster of the Midnight Menagerie, the Veil-run adult pleasure garden and all that implies. What I do appreciate about this triangle is that both men have something a little unknown and mysterious about them. Compton, I think, is hiding something and Hawke, well, there is definitely something different about him. The Veil and the Menagerie understand Cherry has found herself in the center of a mystery that has something magical and dark at its roots. This is hard for Cherry’s scientific mind to accept. And while Cherry believes in the power of science, Micajah obviously believes in the magical and it’s this friction that makes their connection a bit more interesting. That and the fact that Micajah is sexy and mysterious and dangerous.
I can’t write this and not at least mention one quibble I have with regards to the romance in the story…there is a steamy scene with Micajah and Cherry that seemed like exorcism by orgasm. It made me laugh but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intended reaction by the author.
Finally, Tarnished does a great job of crossing genres. It’s steampunk and fantasy and romance and mystery all rolled up into one. It’s really the mystery that’s at the center of this story. Something or someone is killing women below the drift. Cherry is charged with discovering the murderer. And the revelations here are big and tragic. While one mystery is solved, several are left open. Who is the mystery man? What is Micajah? Who the heck is her guardian? And how will she pay her debt to the Karakash Veil? I’ll have to read the next one in the series to find out!