Thursday, June 14, 2012

THOUGHTS-IN-PROGRESS on "Heart of Brass" by Kate Cross

The premise of the steampunk romance "Heart of Brass" is that Arden Grey, The Countess of Huntley, has been working as an undercover for the Wardens of the Realm. Her husband, Luke, who has been missing for seven years, shows up in London. Only, he's been brainwashed by the Warden's rival agency - the Company. Now known only as 'Five,' Lucas has been sent to assassinate Arden.

I like the premise, but the story and characters were falling flat for me. I stopped reading approximately 45% of the way through. Not because it made me angry, or that I found anything distasteful[1], it's just that nothing was working for me. (I might point out, though, that I was in a bit of a reading funk when I started reading this - I found myself reading the beginning of a lot of books, and then putting them down, feeling disinterested.) For some reason, the pacing in this book seemed all off -  both in terms of the plot, and in terms of character development.[2]

First, the characters. The concept of Arden was very cool - the chain (one link for every year her husband was missing) connecting her nose-piercing to her ear-piercing, along with the fact that she is a secret agent who invents things and works with Scotland Yard to solve murder cases - all of this painted a very cool picture of someone who could be a really cool character. Unfortunately, while this concept was so original, her actual appearances on page didn't feel at all out-of-the-ordinary. Her reactions, words and thoughts seemed so mundane for someone whose concept is so out of the ordinary. The characterization didn't work at all for me - although other characters (like Luke and Alistair) 'reacted' as if she were an original (one way to do indirect characterization, I suppose), I never really bought their reactions, since they didn't seem to me, to be prompted by her actions or words. As for Luke, the hero, there was some characterization (like some of his responses to Alistair, his former best friend), but these bits felt disjointed to me. When reading, I did stop and think 'oh here's a bit of characterization,' but none of those bits really cohered into an idea of what Luke was like, or helped me understand what his motivations were. I actually started thinking that he was a bit dim, spending all of those years following orders for the Company, staying loyal to them because they told him he was, especially when his own inclinations and traits (eg. to give orders instead of following them, his posh accent) were so contrary to what they somehow convinced him to believe.[3]

Second, I can never believe the emotional arc of a romance when I don't get the characters. I have this imagery in my head of the hero and the heroine being puzzle pieces, where their characterization is what forms the keyhole and key edges of the puzzle pieces. These edges are what get the two characters inextricably interlocked - i.e., in love. But the characters of the hero and heroine seemed to me as smooth as paper, so I couldn't see how their characters emotionally interlocked. I suppose that a reader could also consider the growth of the physical aspects of their relationship, and find that to be enough. But my personal reading style is that in the absence of an emotional connection, I could care less about a physical connection. (At least in something that's novel-length. If I feel like reading smut, a short story or novella is good enough. In fact, even when I have totally bought that the hero and heroine have fallen in love, I don't need to read pages of random sex. If the sex isn't 'behind the scenes', I want it to mark some change in their characters, or relationship, or the plot.)

As for the plotline, it didn't keep me reading. Things happened, but they seemed a bit random. When a plot grabs me, it's usually because the author somehow makes me believe that if I just knew a bit more, I would be able to figure things out and things would make sense. So I keep reading to try and figure it out. But when I was reading this, I couldn't see the hint of a coherent framework that would have made me keep on reading. Maybe if I had read previous things by the author, I would have had enough faith to keep reading, but this was not the case.

The world-building in "Heart of Brass" was ok. It's a bit difficult to gauge because I like the idea of a steampunk in general. These are my thoughts on my first pass. Since I suspect that I was in a reading funk though, I might try it again later, as it got a lot of really good reviews.

-------------------FOOT NOTES-------------------------

[1] Unlike Sherrilyn Kenyon's  'Dark Hunter' series - I was starting to really enjoy those books until what seemed like a possibly homophobic thread in Tabitha/Valerius's book [READ: Tabitha's comment that imagining Valerius and Acheron together was 'sick'. In order to continue reading the book, I chose to interpret 'sick' as 'super-awesome,' but felt uneasy], became quite overt homophobia in Alexion's book (where no amount of reader-interpretation could let me deny the fact that Alexion felt that gay men were of lesser value than straight men). Now, (i) I have no reason to believe that Sherrilyn Kenyon is homophobic, and (ii) I understand that there are people that think same-sex partnerships are unnatural in the world, and that this fact shouldn't be ignored in fiction, but I cannot enjoy a book where the hero or heroine (who, in a romance, we should be falling in love with) is a bigot. Can. Not. Not unless there's some serious redemption going on so that by the end of the book, the character has their views shaken up.

[2]The one that broke the streak was Elizabeth Hunter's 'A Hidden Fire,' where there was that 'click' that pulled me into the book. Unfortunately, while that book started really strong, I felt it petered out in the end.

[3] Although I should probably acknowledge that some people think that listening to higher authorities is the way to go, and that an individual doesn't have the right to decide what's right or wrong, or where their loyalties ought to lie. This always seemed problematic to me, but if it doesn't seem problematic to you, then maybe you'll think Luke did exactly what he ought to have.

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