The best way to describe Cards and Caravans is “comfortable”. This book is neither terribly exciting, nor thought provoking, and despite being part of a steampunk series, there's very little steampunk in it.
Still, I rather enjoyed this book in which two people who have outgrown their first loves move from friendship and attraction to love. I was in the mood for a very light, affectionate book, and this fit the bill, although in another mood I would have found it to be unbearably dull.
Cards is part of the Gaslight Chronicles series and I think it would work best for those who are fans of the series, as almost all of its charms involve resolving loose ends from other stories, setting up arcs for future stories, and basically just hanging out with the extended family that comprises the Order of the Round Table.
Cards is set in motion when Connor, a member of the Order of the Round Table, is sent to a village in Scotland to investigate the case of Belinda, a widow and herbalist who has been accused of witchcraft. Belinda has some magical ability but not enough to justify the charges against her, and before you can say “plot device” Connor has broken Belinda out of jail and they are escaping across the moors in Belinda's steam-powered circus caravan. They have to get Belinda cleared and also find out who is behind the sudden spate of witch-hunts in the region. Naturally Connor and Belinda end up pretending to be married, and then getting married as a plot contrivance, and naturally they are destined to fall madly in love because Connor has a sense about these things. What with all the prognosticators wandering around saying “He has visions, so I'm thrilled that he saw you and Connor happy together” there's not a whole ton of suspense to this story.
Connor was a major character in the last Gaslight Chronicles book, Moonlight and Mechanicals. In that book, he had his heart broken by Wink (trust me, that's not a spoiler). His relationship with Belinda helps him come to terms with this loss and helps him realize that his love for Wink was based on friendship rather than on passion. Meanwhile, Belinda is a widow who is still mourning the loss of her husband seven years after his death. Through her relationship with Connor and some awfully convenient chats with her husband's ghost, she is able to accept that that marriage was also more affectionate than passionate, and she's able to move on. I liked the themes, and the fact that both protagonists seem to be mature, but I didn't like the somewhat convenient and simplistic solutions to everyone's problems, although admittedly it's the complete and utter lack of tension that makes this book so soothing.
I think that anyone new to the series could follow Cards, but I'm not sure how much they'd get out of it. Belinda is a lovely character, but the big draw of the book is really just hanging out with the Order while they eat elaborate dinners (roasted pheasant with truffle mashed potatoes, oh my!), throw together weddings at a moment's notice, put on circuses, and battle intruders with tranquilizer dart jewelry and frying pans. The family is the perfect, chaotic, noisy family. They veer right on the edge of being the Mary Sue of families, and you can see why Belinda finds them to be both wonderful and exhausting.
This is a short review because honestly there isn't that much to the book. It is a pleasant, soothing interlude in between the madcap adventures of the Order. After the over abundance of plot and bizarre character behavior of the last book, Moonlight and Mechanicals, it was restful to have only one plotline, and characters who actually behave like ethical adults who know how to communicate (most of the time). I appreciated the emphasis on family being constructed in all kinds of ways, including adoption, but I was disappointed by the simplistic resolution of Belinda's fertility problems.
This book seems to have existed so that Connor's relationship with Wink from the last book could be properly resolved, and so that Nell's story could be set up for the next book. It's filler, but it's pleasant filler. I read this on the day before a big trip and it was a great book to read during breaks from packing – not very taxing, not emotionally draining, but not especially engaging or memorable either. As the Witch says in Sondheim's Into The Woods: “You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice”. If you are in the mood for something that's not good or bad but is nice, you'll like this book.