I've been putting off writing a review for this book because I still can't figure out what to say about it. It's steampunk Frankenstein, so if that sounds appealing to you then snap it up post-haste. If you're not a steampunk fan, well, know what you are getting into.
Lee does an excellent job evoking the past in all her books, and this one is no exception. The interesting thing is that she infuses her world with machinery and mechanical men. It almost has a cyberpunk quality in that so much of the book is concerned with the divide between machine and man, and at what point when adding machinery and subtracting flesh does a man cease being human. It's an interesting direction to take the story, and there are also some astute comments of disability and social standing.
Where the book flagged for me was that I went into it wanting a story about brotherhood, and to watch these two brothers grapple with one another throughout the narrative. However, much like the source of inspiration, the two spend most of the book separated and only clash at the ending. This is all well and good, it's just not the story I wanted. While the book spent lavish detail and time exploring other characters and locales I found myself frustrated that it wasn't spending its time on things that interested me more. It doesn't feel fair to be critical of a book for not being what you want it to be, especially when it does a fine job in every other respect, but here I am.
If you dig steampunk you will likely enjoy this book. If you like historical fiction with a twist you will likely enjoy this book. If you want to read an interesting re-telling of Frankenstein you will also likely enjoy this book. If you want a story of brothers at odds with one another, and an exploration of their relationship, this will likely not hit the mark for you.
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