If the British Admiralty is sending airships to fight the Hapsburgs, then this must be steampunk. And damned fine steampunk indeed!
Zoë Archer’s latest book, Skies of Fire, is that steampunk, the first tale of The Ether Chronicles. It’s that “ether” that powers those airships. Along with something, or rather someone, who has been transformed into a “Man O’War”. And no, Ms. Archer was not referring to the horse.
In this alternate-19th century, a scientist has discovered a rare element: Telumium. Telumium is amazing. One of its byproducts is ether, which powers the airships, and ether rifles, and ether-based lights. Another, even more amazing, property of Telumium is that it can be bonded to a human being, creating a super-human, a Man O’War. A Man O’War’s strength is what literally powers his airship.
Christopher Redmond captains HMS Demeter, and his small gunship is trapped and looking for a place to repair behind enemy lines when he catches the glint of an SOS from a British agent. Literally a glint: the signal is being sent by mirror flashes, and only his enhanced sight could have caught it.
Even while hiding from the enemy, Redmond is duty-bound to retrieve that agent, so he drops the jollyboat with a small crew. He puts himself on that jollyboat, knowing the agent must be in desperate straights.
The agent is desperately in need of rescue. And is the last person Christopher Redmond expected to find in the Carpathian Mountains. Or anywhere in his life again. Louisa Shaw is the only woman he ever loved. But when he asked her to marry him, three years ago, she left him, without a work, without a note. He underwent the transformation to become a Man O’War not long after. But he never stopped loving her, even while he sometimes hated her.
Christopher always knew Louise was a member of British Intelligence. Even that she was one of their best field agents. He just wasn’t expecting her here.
And Louisa wasn’t expecting Christopher, either. She still missed him. She always had. But he had wanted a wife, even though she had told him from the very beginning that she would not marry. She had panicked, and run.
But she followed his career and had even memorized the layout of his ship. She just hadn’t expected him to be the one who rescued her. Hadn’t expected him to have changed so much, and yet, not changed at all.
They had to work together, in spite of the lingering wounds and the growing tension between them. Louisa held vital intelligence about a munitions factory behind enemy lines. A factory that must be destroyed at all costs.
In the midst of searching for that factory, can Christopher and Louisa find their way back to each other?
Escape Rating A-: It was great to see some steampunk with a British background for a change! There’s been a recent run of Wild West steampunk (cowpunk!) that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but the change of scene was good.
The relationship between Christopher and Louisa isn’t just hot (although it is) but is also believable. The way the author makes them fight through their bitterness and betrayal, fight each other, and work so hard for their reconciliation is intense. Their second chance has to be hard-won, and readers need to see it to buy into it.
I was dying to figure out where in the alternative timeline this war fit in, and couldn’t quite figure it out. Drove me crazy. Is this an alternate to the Crimean War, making it the 1850’s? When did the telumium discovery taken place? Inquiring minds get caught on these niggly details.
I read this all in one gulp. I wish the next book in the series, Night of Fire by Ms. Archer’s husband and fellow romance writer Nico Rosso, were available now instead of in July.