Cherry St. Croix lives in two worlds, London Above and London Below. Above, she’s the somewhat ostracized daughter of a mad scientist and his aristocratic, much-loved wife; after their deaths when she was a child, Cherry has had to navigate the waters of London’s social set with the guidance of her guardian, but she has never had much success or care for the intricate social politics. Below, she’s a Collector, a detective of sorts who finds and turns in people who owe something to others. As the only female collector, and one who has to keep her identity a secret, Cherry takes great pride in her success. But then, one of her bounties disappears, and the “sweets”, or prostitutes, of Below’s menagerie tell her about a horrible murder and ask for her help in finding the killer.
I really liked this book; it’s a twist on steampunk London, adding fantasy and new elements that made for an interesting world. I thought the actual, literal split between London’s rich and poor was a fascinating division, and it means that whoever shows up “Below” has a real motive and a reason for being there. It appears to be a racial divide as well, although I don’t recall any explicit mention of this. All of the characters of color are met under London, and the social elites are all white. The literal divide means that Cherry actually does live in two worlds, and her different identities in each are starkly defined.
The story itself is actually wrapped up in Cherry’s identity, though; the mystery that she attempts to solve is closely wrapped up in her own past, and as a result we do get a significant amount of her backstory in this one book. We need to, just to understand what’s going on and why it matters. I thought the story was decently intriguing, although readers should be aware that it doesn’t end here at all, and plenty of mysteries are left unsolved for future books in the series.
There is also a romance element to this particular book, although it doesn’t actually get very far. Cherry doesn’t really fall in love with anyone, but she has an intense attraction to two men who personify the split between her two worlds. The first is the leader of the Menagerie, a dark and charismatic figure that Cherry can’t avoid being attracted to; the second is the son of her worst aristocratic nemesis, a tall and golden-haired earl. It’s immediately clear that to be with either, Cherry would have to sacrifice one of her identities, but there’s no hint of a choice in this book, just the beginning of what could be a love triangle in the future.
While Tarnished was a good read, it remained a like, not love, book, for reasons I can’t really explain. Certainly good enough to continue with the series, though; I’d recommend it to those who like urban fantasy and steampunk, but it wouldn’t be the first on my list for current urban fantasy series just yet.
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