Nurse Letitia "Tish" Everett has only really started recovering from her very controlling, emotionally and physically abusive fiancee Jeff, when she's drawn to a tarnished antique locket at an estate sale and actually ends up shocking herself by stealing it. After managing to force it open, she is splashed by luminous crimson liquid. Inside the locket, there is a portrait of a darkly handsome man she think of as a "naughty Mr. Darcy" and a foreign inscription of some kind. Falling asleep with the locket on, she wakes up, stark naked on what appears to be a stone altar in the the middle of the woods. The handsome man from the locket is there waiting for her, and though she insists she must be having a very lucid dream, he explains that she's in a different world now.
The stranger introduces himself as Criminy Stain, a Bludman from the world of Sang. The inhabitants of Sang are either Pinkies, or humans, like Tish, or Bludmen, like Criminy. The Bludmen drink blood, like the vampires of Tish's world, but aren't even vaguely hampered by sunlight, garlic, stakes, crucifixes or suchlike. As Tish listens to Criminy's explanations, she also discovers another important difference between her world and Sang. All the animals in the wild have sharp pointy teeth, all the better to devour you with. The bunnies may look fluffy, but they want to suck her blood and eat her flesh. Criminy claims to have magically obtained the locket, which he sent out into the world to find his one true love. As Tish, or Letitia as he insists on calling her, found it and opened it, she must be his intended. He wants her to stay in Sang with him, running his carnival of freaks and outcasts. Tish is less than impressed. Even if her strange experience turns out not to be a dream, she has an ailing grandmother to care for at home, as well as a number of patients who rely on her. She's not in the market for a boyfriend, even one as charming and handsome as the mysterious Mr. Stain.
Nonetheless, Criminy takes her back to his caravan, after she's narrowly escaped being bitten by several fierce Bludbunnies on the way. Once there, she's quite taken with the fancy corseted outfit she's given and they discover that she's a "glancer", someone who gets visions when she touches the bare flesh of another person. Because she saves the life of the costumer (who is also Criminy's accountant) with her vision, it's clear that her abilities are the real deal, and Criminy sets her up as the caravan's new fortune teller. Tish discovers that when she goes to sleep in Sang, wearing her locket she wakes back up in her own world. When she goes back to sleep in her own bed, having cared for her grandmother and other patients, she's bac in Sang.
Then the locket gets stolen, and Tish is stuck in Sang. She's frantic with worry and since she suspects who stole it and what he wants to do with it, it's imperative that she and Criminy get it back. Criminy is determined that Tish decide to stay with him of her own free will, so they set off on a dangerous quest that will force them to tame Bludhorses, battle ghosts, steal a submarine and outsmart a power-hungry, Bludman-hating city official bent on world domination.
Wicked as They Come is the first book in Delilah S. Dawson's series of what she herself labels as whimsy dark Steampunk. It's the main pick for October 2014 in Vaginal Fantasy (a name I agree with my husband is awful) and Felicia Day described this month's theme as monster mash-up, with books that have a little bit of everything in them. This has a protagonist shifted from one world to another, magic, clockwork animals, Victoriana, vampires who aren't really vampires, a travelling caravan, a dashing hero who runs the caravan and even juggles. There are ghosts, mermaids, evil villains and racism. Being mostly terrified of the Bludmen, the Pinkies have forced them into servitude and isolated themselves into fortified cities. There are very few safe animals left, since the Bludanimals prey on them. It's like the author took a little bit of everything she liked and threw it together, the only thing missing is the kitchen sink.
Strangely, it works. I liked that Tish, while very attracted to Criminy, doesn't just fall into his arms. She's still recovering from some pretty serious abuse in her last relationship and unlike some stories I can think of, her emotional wounds aren't magically made better as soon as she meets a new hot guy. It's also not as if she's in Sang of her own free will, and she's certainly not falling for Criminy's "you're my fated mate because you found the locket" spiel. She likes the novelty of the experience and especially the chance to reinvent herself in fancy Victorian outfits, and she's not averse to flirting a bit with Criminy, but she wants to be wooed properly and is in no hurry to settle down. For one thing, she loves her grandmother and is not going to abandon her to go off to live in an alternate reality.
The idea of the Bludmen was also a great one. A completely different species from humans, although also humanoid, the Bludmen (and animals) drink blood and eat flesh. They can be born or made, which is why animals for food have to be raised within city walls and carefully protected, so the Bludanimals don't get to them. There doesn't seem to be many cats or dogs, as the Bludrats or Bludbunnies have all gotten to them. When Tish is first bitten by a vicious little bunny, I kept thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the "hideous creature with sharp. pointy. teeth!" In the part of Sang where Criminy lives, the Bludmen are considered lower than Pinkies and are usually forced to work in the factories and do menial labor, while the Pinkies are the more prosperous. It is indicated that in other parts of Sang (where most of the countries have names that seem very reminiscent of the European countries of our/Tish's world), this is not always the case.
I didn't exactly like the way Criminy went about getting himself a girlfriend, as Tish is in effect kidnapped from her own world and ends up completely dependent on him in Sang. He also seemed to take his love for her as a given, even after they just met, but gets points for not really forcing himself on Tish and waiting for her to return his feelings. Even when it would be in his best interest NOT to help her, after all, if Tish doesn't have her locket, she's stuck in Sang for good, he agrees to go with her to retrieve it. He has a lot of fairy standard paranormal romance hero traits (extremely attractive, a bit domineering, your typical alpha), which considering this was Ms. Dawson's debut novel, isn't all that surprising. She still managed to create something quite different from a lot of other paranormal/Steampunk offerings out there. I like her world building, her characters and her intentions that the books be whimisical rather than grim and gritty all the time. I suspect this will not be the last of her books that I check out.