I am usually very much a stickler when it comes to reading series in order, which means that by the time I got my greedy mitts on Skies of Gold, I should have read at least two, or more likely four, other books.
See, this is actually the fifth book in the Ether Chronicles, a steampunk historical series written by Zoë Archer and her husband, Nicco Rosso. That is, they do not write the books together, they write alternating books in the series.
The thing is, though, that I probably wouldn’t have even known about the series, let alone this novel, were it not for an interview podcast with the authors at SmartBitches.
Still, and even though I’ve liked what I’ve read of Ms Archer’s other work, I don’t think I would have looked Skies of Gold up, except that it went on sale right after I read this very enthusiastic review–also at the SmartBiches.
What’s a reading addict to do then?
Obviously, get the book and inhale it.
Which I did.
Now all you lovelies get to see what I think about it 😀
But first, the blurb (directly from Ms Archer’s site):
Two Lonely Hearts…
Kalindi MacNeil survived the devastating enemy airship attack that obliterated Liverpool, but even her engineering skills can’t seem to repair her broken heart. Seeking to put her life back together, Kali retreats to a desolate, deserted island—only to discover she’s not alone. Captain Fletcher Adams, an elite man/machine hybrid, a Man O’ War, crashed his battle-damaged airship into this deserted island after Liverpool, never expecting to survive the wreck. But survive he did.
Believing he is nothing but a living weapon, Fletcher is wary of his new-found companion—a pretty, damaged, but determined young woman. Together they are stranded on the deserted island, and it is only a matter of time until desire gets the best of both of them. Soon Kali and Fletcher find they may be just what the other needed. But a danger from beyond the island puts them to the test. Will it rip them apart or bond their hearts forever?
It’s important to note, particularly for those readers who, like me, need to read series in order, so as to keep track of character evolution, world building, etc., that Skies of Gold can be read perfectly well as a stand alone.
There are some brief mentions of characters from previous books, but nothing from those books is so pivotal to this story as to detract from it.
As I said above, I inhaled the novel. It just grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.
The world building is great. While a great many aspects of the technology and the political situation are explained pretty much from the beginning, the setting and the plot of the story itself help make their introduction pretty seamless.
As the novel progresses, bits and pieces of the history and current events, societal mores, discoveries and technology are dropped in conversation, or reflected upon by either character, in such a natural, organic way, the reader absorbs the information without effort or pause.
The story is set in an alternative timeline, but probably somewhere in the late Victorian era (or its equivalent). Britain’s empire is engaged in a Mechanical War with two other world powers, the Russians and the Hapsburgs.
Our heroine, Kali, has shunned the domestic life in favor of a career as an engineer. Having found work for an engineering firm in Liverpool, which was then both an economic and technological hub, she is in the thick of the attack. While her body mostly survived, she’s not so sure she herself has.
And so, she retreats to the end of the world–the Outer Hebrides–intending to rebuild herself. It is not just that she lost her leg, it’s that she survived at all, and now lives to remember the horror of seeing the city virtually razed.
For his part, Fletch never expected to survive the crash, and is now resigned to subsist in this forsaken rock in the middle of the freezing sea until death finally claims him. He too has seen more death and destruction than any human being should, up to and including part of his own crew and airship. In the three months since, he believes he has given up on life.
They both think that they want–need–to be alone. To brood, to come to terms with surviving, to die.
When these two wounded characters meet, it’s not so much that they don’t trust each other as that they don’t want to. And then they start getting to know the other and to understand themselves.
It’s a slow and often painful process for them to come back to life, but it’s also inevitable. As this is a romance, part of that inevitability is the impetus their mutual attraction provides each with. But in truth, individually they are too strong, too vital, to go down. Sooner or later, on their own, they would have come back to life, and to the world.
This part of the book, the time when they get to know each other? I find it delicious.
“We do things differently on Eilean Comhachag. It’s better with us being just Kali and Fletcher. We’ve got no history. We’re…” He struggled to find the right words.
“We are simply us,” she filled in. “As we are at this moment. No past. No thoughts of tomorrow. Only now. Only here.”
I really like that Kali’s ethnicity and racial identity (she’s the daughter of a British officer/engineer and a Hindi woman) inform but not define who she is, what she does or how she feels. And I positively cheered when both this and her gender, and how they adversely affect her, both socially and professionally, were actually discussed between them.
I love that Fletcher admires Kali’s intelligence and talent and spine, and that he’s sincerely happy to see that she herself is aware of her worth.
Aside: I’m always overjoyed when heroines do not display false modesty but instead are perfectly honest with themselves and the world about just how good they are at whatever it is they do. Kali delivers in spades in this regard.
I like that Fletcher’s issues with what and who he is are rooted on more than “she didn’t love me, therefore I’m unlovable” (even though that’s the seed). His struggle with what it means to be a Man o’ War–the battles, the deaths, the destruction–feels real, not contrived.
Then again, I’m a sucker for characters who not just resemble real people but who behave like them. And while fiction has to make sense in the end, characters who occasionally do things on impulse and against what they themselves may consider ‘better judgement,’ are a lot more believable to me than perfect ones.
When they finally admit their feelings to themselves and to each other, the sexual tension is pretty explosive, but I love that they make an honest effort (i.e., more than two weeks living together on what’s left of Fletcher’s ship), at keeping things platonic. Fletcher is sincerely afraid that they’ll lose their friendship by giving in to passion.
…how could he learn the feel of her skin if he didn’t know himself? Each day with her, the deadness inside him broke apart, bit by bit. But he was still coming to understand what it was to have her as a friend. What it was to be a man again, not a ghost.
Eventually, of course, lust wins and boy o boy!
By the way, I was completely won over by the fact that Kali is neither virginal nor prudish, and Fletcher doesn’t give a rat’s ass about it anyway; and that Fletcher is neither a rake nor a recluse, despite his misgivings about being a Man o’ War. More to the point, their past sexual experiences are utterly irrelevant to who and what they are together and to each other.
I love that the reality of Kali’s handicap is not obviated during their lovemaking; both her own feelings about her stump and her fears of Fletcher reacting with pity or revulsion are written convincingly.
And if their sex is well written–and it is–it’s the aftermath that affected me more. They are both comfortable with each other–because they are friends–and insecure about what happens next–because they are now lovers.
In romance genre terms, this is a stranded together in a cabin story. For a good two thirds of the novel, Fletcher and Kali are alone and/or with each other in a fairly small island. Then, the world and its cares rudely intrude.
If I have a quibble with the story–and you know I do or I wouldn’t bring it up at all–is with the villain. He’s just too over the top, just too maniacal-laughter, cartoon-evil-mastermind for me. Not enough to overpower the awesome sauce of the rest of the characterization, just enough for me to be irked by him.
The events that follow the villains appearance do not flow naturally with the rest of the book, at all. The entire tone of the story changes, and while there are some really good bits (Kali’s screwdriver for the win!), this last third of the book is like one of those Sesame Street skits, you know “one of these things is not like the others.” It’s doesn’t mean it’s bad writing, it just doesn’t quite belong here.
Plus there’s an epilogue, which long time readers around here know I rarely enjoy. In this case, I didn’t quite buy how easily Fletcher’s ethical dilemma are circumvented by the author. In a book that faces many hard realities face on, the epilogue feels a bit like a cop out.
Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, with great main characters and world building.
Skies of Gold gets a 8.75 out of 10.
Oh, and go read that review at the Smart Bitches–it’s really good.