The Girl in the Steel Corset

the-girl-in-the-steel-corset

The Girl in the Steel Corset was written by Kady Cross and first published in 2011. It’s a science fiction fantasy story, focusing on super-powered individuals protecting Victorian London. The novel forms the first part of The Steampunk Chronicles and is followed by The Girl in the Clockwork Collar (2012), The Girl with the Iron Touch (2013) and The Girl with the Windup Heart (2014), as well as three short novellas that fill in the gaps between them. The version of the first novel that I’m reading from also contains its prequel novella, The Strange Case of Finley Jayne (2011).

It’s 1897 and London is preparing for Queen Victoria’s jubilee. However, Finley Jayne is not in the mood for celebration. Her employer has just tried to force himself upon her, believing her to be as demure as the other maids. Unbeknown to him, Finley hides a dark secret. She has a violent split personality, and her other side is more than powerful enough to beat the man senseless.

While on the run, she’s struck down by a velocycle. The driver turns out to be Griffin King, the wealthiest man in England, who is relieved to find that Finley is unconscious but unharmed. He takes her back to his home to recover, much to the annoyance of his two live-in friends, Sam and Emily. You see, each of them also hides a secret. They all possess strange abilities and realise that the introduction of an outsider to their household could spell danger for them all.

Griffin and his friends form a small secret society in the service of the Queen. They protect the secret of the Organites – microscopic entities with the power to heal any wound – as they know that they will be dangerous in the wrong hands. With a criminal known as the Machinist striking random locations all over London, Griffin knows that they’ll need all the help that they can get. Finley’s strength, speed and heightened senses would make her a valuable addition to the team. If only he could find a way to get her dark half under control…

One day, I will learn not to be attracted by a pretty cover. From my description, you may have been fooled into thinking that The Girl in the Steel Corset is an exciting and action-packed read. Unfortunately, that’s not the case at all. The book is a prime example of something that’s all style and no substance. More on that shortly.

Firstly, let’s talk about the best thing in this collection – the prequel. The Strange Case of Finley Jayne is actually a lot of fun for such a short story. It has a few narrative problems in the greater scheme of things (Finley’s powers aren’t quite as wild as they are in The Girl in the Steel Corset), and is daft and exposition-heavy, but it is very exciting and built up a compelling Gothic mystery. The novella made me excited to see what would happen in the main event but, unfortunately, it just couldn’t retain this momentum for the full length of a novel.

From the outside, The Girl in the Steel Corset looks as though it should be a pretty wild ride. Steampunk! Superheroes! Victoriana! In the acknowledgements, Cross mentions that she set out to write a novel that was X-men meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There is no part of this combination that I don’t like.

While you can see the influences of these series within her work, beneath these flashy trappings, it’s a just a bog-standard YA romance. Any plot that this book may have had is just secondary to your tried and tested tale of a “special” girl torn between the rich nice-guy and seductive rogue. The hints of a greater mystery (whatever the Machinist’s plans for the jubilee are) form the tiniest part of the story and don’t really come together until the last couple of chapters. Instead, Cross pushes aside any story development to make way for buckets of angst and relationship dramas. Whenever the plot does bubble to the surface, it’s delivered so heavy-handedly that I guarantee you’ll guess the twist within the first hundred pages.

The book isn’t even that well written. While I’ve admittedly read worse, the prose is incredibly repetitive and treats the reader as though they have the memory of a sieve. Important points are hammered home over and over, and all information is delivered to the reader in heavy information dumps rather than being shown. The story doesn’t even end well, finishing on an abrupt cliff-hanger relating to something barely hinted at before the final two pages.

Even the novel’s two big draws – superpowers and steampunk elements – don’t ever feel as though they’ve been fully integrated into the tale. They’re just kind of…there. Despite the exposition, nothing ever felt as though it was adequately explained. The powers of some of the characters are implied to be connected to the Organites, but this doesn’t seem to fully explain those of Cordelia and Jasper who have had little exposure to these organisms. Everyone’s powers also seem to be constantly changing and growing more acute, purely to ensure that the protagonists can immediately overcome any threat or survive fatal injuries. This removes virtually all tension from the tale.

The steampunk aspects are handled a little better, but they’re still clearly just there for aesthetic purposes. The gadgets that the team use and the automata they face are mainly just Victorian versions we have of things that we have today, such as velocycles in place of motorbikes. We never learn much about how they work beyond the fact that Organites somehow power them. Because of this, the book never really felt like a particularly good example of steampunk literature. It’s just not industrial enough. It’s more a historical novel with some modern-day conveniences.

To make matters even worse, I couldn’t even like the characters. Even beyond the two love triangles (Griffin/Finley/Jack and Sam/Emily/Jasper), all of the cast are just so shallow. Of the lot of them, Jack was probably the most interesting. Sure, I wanted to choke him by the 8,000 time he called Finley “Treasure”, but at least he had some charisma. Unfortunately, Jack had no bearing on the plot beyond being a potential suitor. Everyone else was varying degrees of bland. Griffin had virtually no defining character traits beyond having Batman’s origins story and a liking for Finley, Sam is fuel by his instant and irrational hatred of Finley and Emily is smart and Irish. That’s all there really is to any of them.

As the main protagonist, Finley is also very weak. The most interesting thing about her is her split personality, yet this just disappears halfway through the novel. It’s exposited that Griffin has “merged” her two sides off page, but it never really explores what this means for Finley. It just seems to remove her weakness and make her an unstoppable Mary Sue. Cross also seems unable to balance modern and Victorian attitudes, with Finley displaying wildly contradictory attitudes regarding what is considered proper. She’ll happily practice jujitsu with the men and go out dressed in trousers and a corset, but can’t attend a party unchaperoned. Sensibility in the novel just seemed to work in whatever the way Cross needed to in a given situation.

Sorry, I’m starting to ramble so I guess I’ll wrap up. I was relieved to finally get to the end of this book and really would have given up sooner if I wasn’t planning on reviewing it. While I am generally a fan of steampunk novels, this really wasn’t for me and I’m not in any real hurry to read any more of the series.

The Girl in the Steel Corset can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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