The saying “You can’t tell a book by its cover” is an interesting one, because we almost never use it when talking about books, do we? We pull it out to describe the slovenly fellow who paints delicate watercolors... the fragile-looking woman who packs a mean right hook... or maybe, the old, driven-by-grandpa four-door that surprises with a souped-up V-8 under its oxidized hood. The point is that none of those things involves a book.
More interesting, perhaps, is that the saying isn’t strictly accurate; I think you pretty much can guess what a book will be like by studying its cover. The artwork may not jibe completely with the author’s words, but you can usually get at least a sense of what kind of story you’ve picked up, and if there are any blurbs, quotes, or snippets on the cover, those all provide yet more clues to what lies within.
But, what happens when there is no cover? With the growing popularity of e-books, it’s becoming more and more common to access something only via some sort of e-reader... meaning there may or may not be any “cover” artwork.
All of which leads me to a book I read recently--a friend-recommendation, as it happens. Only available in e-form, there wasn’t--at least, not at the time I downloaded it (there is, now, of course, pfft)--a cover to be perused, no blurbs to be considered. Nope, all I had was this friend’s enthusiastic “Try it, I think you might like it!”.
Here’s where things get a bit dicey. Turns out this definitely wasn’t something I’d have chosen, had I been trolling the aisles at my local bookstore in search of something fabulous. Why? Because if this book were available in print form, it would’ve almost certainly been shelved in an area in which I never set foot--Romance. (For anyone who fondly remembers the TV show “Seinfeld”, you should know that I just uttered that word like Jerry always said “Newman”.)
[Let me stress that I don’t look down on any of the genre’s avid readers; I just prefer love stories and any “smexy” scenes to take a big backseat to all the other action in whatever I’m reading.]
So, my delightful friend suckered me into reading a romance... by luring me in with promises of Steampunkishness and a little mystery. Indeed, the title Steam and Sorcery (by Cindy Spencer Pape) sounded most promising...
In what I’ve come to think of as typical romance-novel fashion, the HEA (that’s Happily Ever After, if you’re not entirely up on your acronyms) is broadcast loud and clear within the first few pages. Masculine, titled English hunk (Sir Merrick Hadrian) meets sweet, unassuming governess (Miss Caroline Bristol)... and they immediately proceed to experience tingling feelings and certain stirrings for one another (and yes, you can make of that what you will; no matter how innocent or bawdy your thoughts, you’ll be spot-on).
When the pair are conveniently thrown together again, months later--after he unexpectedly acquires the guardianship of five children, and finds himself in need of a governess, pronto--it’s hardly a surprise.
Merrick isn’t just your run-of-the-mill, ruggedly-handsome gentleman, though; he’s actually an ancestor of one of the original Knights of the Round Table, and is, himself, a powerful knight (complete with some magically-enhanced abilities) in that order... which now functions as a sort of secret, special policing force under the auspices of the government. Their mission is to root out the most dastardly of criminals, as well as supernatural baddies (things like vampires and rogue werewolves, if you’re wondering). During the course of one of his investigations, Merrick is aided in fighting off a nasty band of vampires by a roving group of street kids. (With apologies to those who only like their vampires sweetly-sparkly, the bloodsuckers in this story are truly vile--disgusting, smelly creatures who harbor no love whatsoever for the living.) Knowing that the children’s actions have put them in danger, Merrick valiantly takes them in for their protection (thus necessitating the aforementioned, comely Miss Bristol’s presence).
So much for the “sorcery” part; what about the “steam” part? Well, there’s an element of Steampunk: there are mechanical animals and other small inventions which definitely didn’t exist in Victorian London (a motorized vacuum device that seems a lot like a Roomba, for instance), and people can take airships to distant locations. They also have something like our computers, in the early stages (past punch cards, but still huge and only institutional). And, the main plot (actually, I should say the secondary plot, because the romance is clearly what the author really cares about), concerns stolen technology--the use of which, in the wrong hands, holds dire repercussions for humanity.
Will Sir Merrick figure out and put a stop to the devilish plot before any of the children have been gravely harmed, or will the vampires triumph? Is it feasible for him to live in the same household as Miss Bristol without falling top-hat-over-riding-boots for her? And, what about the fair governess--can she possibly expect to retain her wits and her virtue while in such close proximity to such a specimen of manly splendidness? (Admittedly, I’m rolling my eyes right now. But, you know the answers, right? Right??)
This is by no means an “awful” book. It has a certain charm--particularly in the relationships between Merrick’s new wards, who had already formed their own little family unit out on the streets. There’s a touch of humor, too, which is always welcome. And--thank goodness--Pape shows some pretty decent writing chops, insofar as she keeps her plot going, creates a nice sense of time and place, and pulls it all off with a little creative flair.
But--and this is a large “but”--in the end, this book is still just a gussied-up romance, with itty-bitty dollops of “sorcery” and “steam” tossed in here and there. If Pape had shifted the balance--weighted her story more like two-thirds steampunk/mystery and only one-third love story--she might have had something really promising. (Less heaving bodices and more intricate plotting is always the best plan, in my book.) Instead, she stuck to her romance roots (as I found out when I got to the afterword), with the end result that this book is something of an oddity: not enough science-y stuff to satisfy those looking for the alternate-reality world of Steampunk... yet with enough of the mechanical-fantasy setting to make straight romance readers raise their eyebrows.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Ratings: for me, a non-romance reader, 2 mousies; for fans of romance (& a little light fantasy), 4 mousies
[Note: The Amazon "cover" image above wasn't available when I first downloaded this book. It's a very nice cover, and accurate inasmuch as the characters are properly depicted; plus, you can tell there's a Steampunk element at play. However, a glance at the covers of this author's other books--in all their near-naked, heaving pieces-&-parts, erm, splendor--is probably a better representation of her true style. ;)]