"Steam & Sorcery: The Gaslight Chronicales #1". Author Cindy Spencer Pape
Fascinating Characters in a Flat World by Nakeesha Seneb
Steam & Sorcery, the first book in Cindy Spencer Pape's Gaslight Chronicles had a really great premise and conflict: a governess, hit upon one too many times by her employers, meets a determined bachelor with "special" children that need her care. Pape set Merrick and Caro up for a bang of a love story with great internal baggage. Their internal baggage, you'll come to learn, has everything to do with the steam punk world that they live in. Merrick is a Knight of The Order, an organization that fights against the otherworldly creatures that go bump in the night like vampyres and rogue wizards. Unbeknownst to Caro, her good looks and desirability have something to do with this world too. Merrick and Caro were both interesting leads, but after their introductions I never reconnected with them on an emotional, compassionate level. The reason why? I found the world building was lacking.
The rules of the world were just written down; told. They never came to life because they didn't complicate matters. Its brilliant that Caro is part fae and that's where all her drama of employers chasing her around comes from. Merrick isn't compelled by her fae-ness. In fact, fae are natural enemies of the Order. But this complication is dealt with quick and neat and everyone accepts it. Merrick, after trying to tamp down his feelings for Caro and his insistence on not marrying because of his dangerous job, one day wakes up and decides he'll marry her. And that's it. No angst. No tossing and turning over the decision. No confrontation with the Order of his choice of bride. Its just announced and done.
In her How to Revise Your Novel course, Holly Lisle tells us that "Worldbuilding is the process of creating a setting that interacts with your story, your characters, and your readers." Lisle insists, and I agree, that setting is not passive. Just like we're told to show not tell with the plotting, writers should be expected to do the same with the background of the story -especially if there's an element of the extraordinary.
Caro, the novice to this brave, new steam punk world, just accepted everything about the setting without question, which was not helpful to me as a reader trying to understand the scenery and customs. Her acceptance cast everything into an ordinary light, but I was left in the dark as to the workings of things.
Setting should also be unique, Lisle teaches. Unique things inspire awe. When Caro's told of the creatures creeping in the night, the unique talents of the children she's charged with, the occupation of her new employer, and even the fantastical things she learns about her own background, she never bats an eyelash or asks a question or even doubts the veracity of the happenings. As a reader, I was woefully cheated out of delving deeper into the world because Caro never made a big deal out of the extraordinary things happening around her.
Lisle also tells her students that gimmicks of the setting should provide conflict by creating obstacles. Knights of the Order had magical ability. In one scene, Caro and Merrick happen into a brothel enhanced by magic. In one room, a sex spell has been cast that's causing group orgies. In another room, another spell has been cast that makes people feel lucky and they gamble. Caro and Merrick merely poke their heads in each room and duck out before any conflict can ensue. Missed opportunity here. We could have had the opportunity to understand how spells were cast, how they were broken, a bit of history about the magicks and its weak points, etc. But nope. Caro and Merrick dash out and head home safe, sound and with no complications.
I read another of Pape's steampunk books awhile back and loved it! She's a very talented and fun writer. I'm giving her a pass on this one based on my belief that sometimes the first book in a series, just like the pilot of a television show, sometimes misses the mark with all the heavy lifting it must to do introduce character, setting, and plot. There were great characters and an interesting plot here, but the setting (worldbuilding) was really lacking.