Author Karina Cooper kicks off with her new steampunk series, The St. Croix Chronicles, with this month’s release, Tarnished. Cherry St. Croix is a well-to-do miss who masquerades as a bounty hunter, and is stuck navigating between the worlds of high society of Victorian London above and the mysterious, magical streets of a dangerous London below. Her night job delivering bounty leads her down some dark roads, including capturing a killer and uncovering the secrets of a mad scientist. Read on to hear what RT's Elisa and Regina have to say about this unusual tale.
Elisa: Let me preface this Dish by saying that my love for alternative history tales is far-reaching and I adore a good steampunk. But lately, I’d kind of been feeling a bit … uninspired ...
Regina: I feel ya’. Which is why I’m happy I got you to pick up Karina Cooper’s new series starter Tarnished.
Elisa: Your recommendation could not have been better! This book is a whirlwind adventure that made me forget Victorian London didn’t actually have steam powered airships and a London proper that is raised into the sky, separating it from the city’s gritty underbelly. This book was one part historical romance, one part steampunk fantasy and all parts awesome.
Regina: Agreed, Cooper combines her two worlds seamlessly. You get the best aspects of a historical, with the inclusion of formal balls and worrying about one's reputation and all the best features of steampunk, with the mad scientist and an underground intrigue plotline.
Elisa: But before we dive into the story itself, let’s introduce the story’s fabulous heroine: Miss Cherry St. Croix.
Regina: I think the best way to describe Cherry is if I got sucked into a time warp and was spit back out an ass-kicking, breeches-wearing bounty hunter with a potty mouth. Okay, maybe I’m not as awesome as Cherry, but she is incredibly spirited and doesn’t seem too interested in what proper London society — including her doting chaperone, Fanny — thinks of her.
Elisa: Cherry would rather have her face covered in coal dust than impress any of the upper-crust socialites at the balls Fanny forces her to attend. Snagging a wealthy husband is the last thing on Cherry’s mind. (I think it's really cool that Cooper doesn't make whether Cherry will get married and be "saved" from poverty a plot point at all.)
Regina: Basically, Cherry just has to worry about the threat of being exiled from polite society. And It's not even her own reputation she's concerned about, it's the reputations of the people she cares about, her staff, which are the only family she has after spending most of her childhood in an orphanage and then working for an underground circus.
Elisa: Cherry’s habit of mingling with London’s rich and famous does have its perks though. And there’s no denying that one of these is the handsome Earl of Compton. He initially embarrasses her after she’s cut at a ball, but turns out to have a genuine romantic interest in Cherry.
Regina: But Compton isn’t the only guy who is interested in her. The other is Teddy, Cherry’s good friend, who has an elephant-sized crush on her.
Elisa: Oh Teddy, you truly are a nice guy who finishes last. But at least Cherry has someone she can depend on.
Regina: Which is sometime that she certainly needs, because unlike most young ladies, Cherry’s days aren’t just filled with begrudgingly going to balls and wearing frilly gowns. She leads a double life. She had a rough upbringing after her parents died, but Cherry’s unfortunate childhood made her an excellent bounty hunter, or “collector.”
Elisa: So now in addition to her life as a young miss, she masquerades as a man down in London below, kidnapping men by request and delivering them for a price. But she doesn’t always spend her earnings smartly …
Regina: Right! Growing up in an orphanage left Cherry with a crippling addiction to opium, which her caretakers used to “calm” the children.
Elisa: A well-heeled miss with a serious drug problem? Definitely a first for this reader.
Regina: But I really liked this part of her character. Although she’s flawed, her realistic problems are part of what draw you into the story and keep your attention.
Elisa: And her opium addiction literally fuels her need to capture men in exchange for payment, which puts Cherry in some very sticky situations.
Regina: Including working for Micajah Hawke, ringmaster of the Midnight Menagerie circus she was part of years ago.
Elisa: And this is where the plot really thickens.
Regina: After Cherry befriends some of the “classier” prostitutes that are involved in the Menagerie, she discovers that someone has been killing them off and selling their organs.
Elisa: So what do the clever “sweets” — aka these London Below prostitutes — do? Hire the best bounty hunter in London, of course. It’s Cherry’s job to find the killer, but what she discovers throws her through a loop.
Regina: While searching for the organ snatcher, Cherry learns that Professor Elijah Woolsey has been reanimating dead tissue, Frankenstein style, in his laboratory, in the name of science.
Elisa: Yeah, and you know he’s totally getting the body parts from legitimate sources. No prostitutes were harmed in the making of Professor Woolsey’s zombie-monster. And because you can’t hear the sarcasm dripping off my words, let me be clear there’s sarcasm dripping off my words!
Regina: But Cherry is intrigued by Woolsey at first, and he claims to have known her parents, so she begins to trust him ...
Elisa: It looks like things are going to get better until he’s murdered right in front of Cherry.
Regina: And to add insult to injury, a mysterious stranger drugs her with a strange opium-infused hallucinogen.
Elisa: This is when Cherry has a pretty impressive breakdown. She begins seeing things, experiences pain so great she tries clawing her own skin off and completely loses touch with reality. She’s tripping bigtime.
Regina: Her drug-induced psychosis is so bad that she’s brought to the safest place in London below, the Menagerie, where Hawke cares for her.
Elisa: And boy, does he care for her. What they do gives a whole new meaning to “home remedy.”
Regina: It’s a very unexpected encounter. Cherry is a virgin and knows little about sex, and because she’s not in the right mind, she doesn’t know how to respond to what’s happening to her …
Elisa: All she knows is that she wants Hawke to keep going.
Regina: The whole scene is slightly uncomfortable, but overall we come out feeling the same way as Cherry does: she’s satisfied and seeing Hawke in a while new light.
Elisa: Looks like Lord Compton has some competition.
Regina: So now we have two heroes, both flawed and neither one a clear “winner.” This is another twist Cooper adds that makes this book unique. We genuinely have no idea who Cherry will choose. Both heroes have their own sets of issues while remaining likable.
Elisa: But when Cherry returns to London above after she recovers from her bad trip, she discovers that Compton has mysteriously left town with his brother, making Cherry wonder if her dream boy has some secrets of his own …
Regina: But she doesn’t have long to lament his disappearance, because she must go back down into the smoggy city below and discover once and for all who is responsible for the deaths of London’s prostitutes.
Elisa: What Cherry learns about the murderer, and her own family, is something you’ll have to find out for yourself by picking up a copy of Tarnished!