Sharon Cameron is a new favorite author!
In mid-nineteenth century England, seventeen-year-old Katharine Tulman is orphaned and dependent upon her Aunt Alice for her livelihood. Katharine commonly serves as Aunt Alice’s bookkeeper, but realistically she is her servant as she is expected to do anything Aunt Alice asks of her, with the expectation that one day she will do the same to Teddy, her young cousin, when he comes into his inheritance. However, Aunt Alice is concerned that Teddy’s inheritance is dwindling, being mismanaged by his uncle, and Katharine is sent to have him committed to an asylum. When she arrives at Stranwyne, Katharine is not at all welcomed, finding a drafty, decaying house with only a few close-mouthed occupants, a housekeeper Mrs. Jefferies, her stubborn nephew Lane Moreau, and mute boy Davy with his pet rabbit, who are stubbornly against her seeing her uncle. Still, upon meeting Uncle Tully, as he is known, Katharine discovers there are no shortage of secrets at Stranwyne. Uncle Tully is prone to fits and his own particular way of doing things, but scientifically speaking, he is a genius. He creates “toys” or metal inventions that are motorized animals, people, and other interesting contraptions. In addition to a wide variety of machineworks on the estate, there are also two villages, made up of rescued citizens from England’s workhouses, people whom Uncle Tully is keeping from a harsh lifestyle and who are working toward being self-sufficient making pottery, among other things. Despite these new revelations, Katharine has no personal choice in the matter, it’s either she expose her uncle for mismanagement of the estate or her own future will be on the streets. However, she is able to agree to a month-long trial, as proposed by her uncle’s solicitor, Mr. Babcock. As the time passes, Katharine becomes more and more attached to her uncle and the life at Stranwyne, discovering hidden secrets about her own past and her family while she’s there, until she even comes to believe she might be a little bit mad…
In this sequel, Katharine and Uncle Tully are in a lot of danger. Both the British and the French governments want Uncle Tully’s inventions and the man himself so that they can further their technological warfare, especially since both are currently engaged in the Crimean War. After masked men break into Stranwyne, Katharine, Mary and Mr. Babcock are forced to come up with a plan since defending Stranwyne from potential murderers would be nigh impossible. With the pressure from a British authority, they decide to fake Uncle Tully’s death and tell none of the staff, hightailing it to a family estate in Paris, all the while hiding a drugged Uncle Tully first in a trunk and then in a specially made space of hidden rooms in the city townhouse. In Paris, Katharine has only herself, Mary Brown, her trustworthy and forthright ladies’ maid, and Mr. Babcock, her solicitor. Katharine must also pretend to be the real heiress she is, despite rampant rumours in society of her relationship with a servant, and behave responsibly, which is very hard while hiding Uncle Tully and looking for Lane, whom the British government says is dead after he went to France as a spy to find Ben Aldridge, the man who killed Davy and wanted to steal Uncle Tully’s invention. Luckily or unluckily, an old acquaintance of Katharine’s lives next door and introduces her to the family and friends at a dinner party. There, Katharine meets the ever complimenting Mr. Marchand who comes to chaperone her about the town. Still there are a number of mysteries about the place that remind her of the ever-present danger: a man on the street who watches her house at all hours, her French housekeeper who sells unknown packages at her down, the artist that lived and went missing next door, the probably dead Lane, and the still at large Ben Aldridge as well as the threat of Napoleon III’s and the British military, or any houseguest really, finding Uncle Tully still alive. Can Katharine keep her uncle and his inventions safe, find Lane, and finally get the life she wants back at Stranwyne, or is she in so far over her head that she’s in danger of losing it entirely…
I simply loved this series! I thought the characters were quirky and captivating, the setting intriguing, the steampunkness not overdone but very original. Ingenious. The mystery element was tantalizing and well thought out. The first one finds readers who love a mysterious house with many secrets, and the second, takes them to a new mystery house and adds royal intrigues of Napoleon III and a swashbuckling adventure. By far the thing I was most impressed with in this series was how every time I thought things were getting too impossible for our main character to come out victoriously, she did, with credible believability. Time and again Sharon Cameron wowed me with that, and I find myself missing the characters long after reading. For a historical fiction, steampunk, romance, mystery mashup, this is a jewel of a read.
In a post-apocalyptic Europe where life has seemingly moved backwards as technology is viewed as taboo or artifacts (a Nintendo controller, anyone?), Sophia Bellamy’s family is on the edge of bankruptcy. Though they are Commonwealth, her father has promised her in marriage to the wealthy René Hasard son of a merchant family, native to the Sunken City and therefore an enemy. In what once was Paris, the Sunken City is under the thumb of Premier Allemande and his Protector, the maniacal LeBlanc, who have started a new revolution. Any who oppose are thrown into prison and murdered, except for those whom the Red Rook makes disappear, signified by a red-tipped feather and empty cells. To some the Red Rook is a savior, to others, a criminal deserving of death, and LeBlanc intends to find him, a trail that leads him right to the Bellamy estate where his cousin, René, is celebrating his engagement with wild abandon, charm, and frivolity. Sophia, on the other hand, is continuing to secretly thwart the revolution, until she discovers René is not what he appears, and the danger to herself, her family, and her people can only mount higher before this fast-paced adventure is over.
So, the premise of this novel is very interesting, as it comes off with a historical fiction and science fiction backdrop that is reversed from what we would usually think. The society has embraced (or been forced) into a mostly pre-technology existence, with what little technology they have being historically unusable or hoarded by the government. The problem here is that it just was not explained well enough. Getting an understanding of what this world looked like was next to impossible. For once, it needed more description, but for an already fairly long YA book, maybe they thought it couldn’t be longer. I think the editing for this book was subpar. Sharon Cameron had a fantastic idea, but needed a bit more help fleshing it out to bring it fully alive for the reader, which should have been noticed by the editor(s). The story, though hard to place with setting and backstory, even of the characters, quickly escalates and pulls the reader in, making the problems almost forgettable. Many characters are somewhat flat. However, René with all of his secrets, charisma, and spunk making him a sort of pirate/spy playing the gentleman dandy is sure to delight.
I will surely be reading any future works from this talented author, and I hope you discover something to love about her books too!