Review: Gilded by Karina Cooper

Gilded by Karina CooperFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, paperback, mass market paperback
Genre: urban fantasy, steampunk
Series: The St. Croix Chronicles, #2
Length: 384 pages
Publisher: Avon
Date Released: December 26, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In the gleaming heights of Victorian London, a world of deception awaits an unconventional Society lady whose taste for adventure makes her a most formidable adversary …

Though Society demands that I make a good marriage, I, Cherry St. Croix, have neither the time nor the interest. I am on the trail of a murder with no victim, a mystery with no motive, and the key to an alchemical formula that could be my family’s legacy.

Yet the world is not so kind as to let me pursue simple murder and uncomplicated bounties. Above the foggy drift, an earl insists on my attention, while my friends watch my increasingly desperate attempts to remain my own woman. From the silken demands of the Midnight Menagerie—to whose dangerously seductive ringmaster I owe a debt—to the rigorous pressures of the peerage, all are conspiring to place before me a choice that will forever change my life.

My Review:

I think there’s a theme to the titles of the books in Karina Cooper’s St. Croix Chronicles. Her terribly flawed heroine, Cherry St. Croix, always feels as if she is living in some kind of cage. The titles of the books in the series, Tarnished, Gilded, and book 3, Corroded, represent the type of cage that Cherry is trapped in during that part of her life.

Yes, I know, the prequel novella, The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway, doesn’t fit the pattern, but there’s always an exception that fits the rule.

The world of the St. Croix Chronicles is a very dark steampunk version of London where the division between rich and poor has been made quite visibly manifest. An engineer who went stark raving mad found a way to raise London’s wealthy districts above the murk and pea-soup fogs created by her industries, while leaving the poor in the wretchedness of London quite literally below.

The social strata given form.

Cherry straddles two worlds, and not just because of her unconventional parents and hidden unsavory upbringing, but because she herself has been unable to settle into the role (she would call it a strait-jacket) that Victorian society forces on upper-class females.

Also, she is still addicted to opium, a legacy of her lost days in the underworld, and she requires a method of paying for continued habit.

tarnished by karina cooperIn Tarnished (reviewed at Book Lovers Inc.) Cherry tells the story of her continuing to lead the double life of society miss by day and London’s only female Collector, that is bounty hunter, by night, while keeping her household, and society, in the dark as she waits out the last days before she turns of age and can claim her rights to her inheritance.

But instead of freedom, the Midnight Menagerie sunk its own claim into her as she meddled in something either alchemical, magical or scientific beyond her ability to escape.

In Gilded, Cherry discovers that society has its own methods of forcing her to do its will, even as she beats her hands against the bars of the cage she feels closing around her. And even though she knows that marriage is a trap for any woman who would otherwise possess her own fortune, the Midnight Menagerie blackmails her into doing their bidding.

It is only then that she discovers the true nature of the cage that she has stepped into, even as she hears the key turning in the lock.

Escape Rating B+: The St. Croix series gets darker and grittier as it goes, and it keeps going downward in that sense. It’s very good, but don’t read it if you’re looking for a “pick me up”! While I won’t spoil the ending, I will say that you will not leave this story with a smile. More like a heartrending moan.

Cherry is hunting Jack the Ripper and someone is hunting her. This was established in Tarnished and is still part of the underlying plot in Gilded, but the overarching story in Gilded is the “what is Cherry going to do” story. Everyone in London above is hell-bent on Cherry marrying Earl Compton before she reaches her majority except Cherry. I almost wonder if there’s a plot behind that, now that I think about it.

Cherry is also trying to solve a murder at King’s and University Colleges, one that also involves female rights, so again, there’s the theme of what rights do women have and someone seems to be making sure that Cherry can’t claim hers. This may be my interpretation.

Cherry is incredibly flawed, and the story is told from her first-person perspective. She is unquestionably an opium addict, even if she can’t admit it to herself. She’s not even trying to quit. Sometimes she runs out of funds and can’t buy any, but she has no intention of quitting. Her usage simply spirals up and down as fortunes permit. I’m not sure I’ve ever read of an unrepentant addict as a hero or heroine before. She lies, she cheats, she steals, and she loses track of everything she says and does. But she still solves her cases, eventually. She also makes horrific mistakes because of her addiction. But in at least two cases, it also saves her life.

Which makes Cherry’s opium the very model of a conflict of desires.

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