Book Review

Review: Scarlet Devices by Delphine Dryden


Title: Scarlet Devices
Author: Delphine Dryden
Publication Info: Berkely Sensation 2014
ISBN: 978-0-425-26578-9
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Book Scarlet Devices - two people in steampunk costumes goggles and gears included against a sepia background Scarlet Devices is a fun steampunk romance road trip, in which contestants drive and fly in steam-powered contraptions across the Continental US for a cash prize and heaps of glory.  It has moments of brilliance and although I didn’t swoon over it, I sure did have a good time.

Scarlet Devices is about Eliza Hardison, who enters a cross-country race.  One of her competitors is Matthew Pence, a childhood friend.  Matthew is trying to win the race, but he’s also trying to keep an eye on Eliza because he feels protective towards her.

This book is brilliant in some ways and glaringly odd in other ways.  One thing I had trouble with was understanding the background and the way the world is organized.  Because this is the second book in a series of stand alones (the first is Gossamer Wing) I don’t know how much exposition happens in the previous book.  I could keep up, and I sort of appreciated being expected to keep up without having massive info dumps explaining every detail.  But I also enjoyed a foray over to Dryden’s website where she lays it all out for you – the history of the world, complete with maps.  Even if you don’t read the book, if you enjoy steampunk, take a look at her blog.  It’s fun and very well thought out.

Here’s the weirdest thing about the book – what’s with the rejection of Chinese “Old Ways”?  I was all excited by the cover, which shows an Asian woman, because I like to see more diverse representation in all kinds of media.  Sure enough, our heroine Eliza, is the granddaughter of the famous (in the book's world) Eliza Chen.  But she although she carries on her grandmother’s legacy of crusading for worker’s rights, Eliza is quick to remind people that her last name is “Hardison”.  I mean, she is REALLY quick on the draw, as though offended by being called “Eliza Chen”.  Then repeatedly she reassures people that she doesn’t follow “the old ways”.  What old ways?  Why doesn’t she follow them?  Does she honor her Chinese heritage in any way?  Because it seems like she’s not only obsessed with rejecting her heritage, but with making sure everyone knows it.

The story of someone from an immigrant family with an ancestor who casts a long shadow could be fascinating.  Eliza could be eager to establish her own identity and escape accusations of nepotism.  She could be anxious to assimilate to avoid racism.  But none of this is addressed.  Since this is the second book in a series, it’s possible that I missed some background, but I was disappointed to see a woman of color appear to have internalized racism without that being addressed more.

Finally, and it pains me to say this, the villain is a terrible villain – just terrible.  Here’s why:

1.  He has not read The Evil Overlord List.

2. He gloats, he reveals his plans, and his plans involve keeping his prisoners captive until he can kill them slowly, which is a classic rookie mistake.

3.  He’ll never get away with it. 

Look, I live in Gold Rush Country and because I’m the parent of a fourth grader I have spent the last year driving ten-year-old children around the foothills on mining related field trips.  Every now and then the ten-year olds stop poking each other and giggling and playing with sticks long enough for all of us to learn something on these trips, and one thing I learned is that mining is hard.  No matter how expendable your miners are, they do actually have to be able to pay attention to their work if you want them to extract actual stuff.  Mining is difficult.  So doping up your miners on opium isn’t just evil – it’s dumb.  You’ll never get away with it in the sense that you won’t get any quicksilver, just a lot of stoned employees.

The book is at its best when it explores the camaraderie among the racers.  There are other women, and the entire group forms an alliance to make it through the most dangerous parts of the race.  This is especially true once they realize an outside party is attacking them.  I liked seeing them work together and was considerably more invested in a side romance between two other racers than in the romance of the main couple.  I also loved the adventurous aspect to it.  It’s been a long time since I read something that was so clearly and joyfully a road movie.  I felt like I was travelling along with a group of friends, harassed by bad weather and explosions, but comforted by fabulous French food and camaraderie.

When it comes to the main couple, I never felt that invested in them, which is frustrating because I can’t pinpoint why the relationship fell flat for me.  The relationship is at its best when it comes to sexuality.  It’s very difficult to impress me with a sex scene but lately I’ve come across a few authors who make it funny, realistic, erotic, and character building – and this is one of them.  There are only two sex scenes but they are both lengthy and explicit.  More importantly, they work with the characters.  You can see the characters' relationship developing through the scene.  You can see Eliza become more confident and Matthew learn to lighten up and trust her more.  The scenes are an integral part of the story.  I never felt like the author said, “Oh, I’m at page 74 – this is where the publisher says there should be some sex!”  And I love a funny, awkward sex scene and my goodness this is hilarious.  And daring, and funny.  I never loved Eliza so much as when she was trying to figure out what she wanted from this relationship and how far she wanted to take it.

This book was all over the place.  Parts of it deserved an A plus and parts a C or lower.  I’m going to average it out with a B- on the strength of the side characters, the fun of the adventure, the joy of watching Eliza find out what she wants out of life, and those very well-written, very hot, very funny sex scenes.  The stuff with the villain was ridiculous and the stuff with Eliza’s heritage was definitely perplexing and possibly enraging, but I’m withholding at least some judgment because there may be some details I missed in prior or upcoming books.  In general, this is a fun, sexy, steampunk adventure romance.

This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Sony | Kobo | All Romance eBooks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Dora says:

    My initial thought just based on your description isn’t that she’s rejecting Chen because of her heritage. It’s that if she wasn’t Hardison, she would have the exact same name as that famous ancestor Eliza Chen, and thus would have even more trouble distancing herself from the long shadow you describe the character as casting, which sounds like an issue that crops up in the story. So she’s not rejecting it because it’s an Asian name, she’s rejecting it to put even more distinction between herself and someone she’s already compared to enough without sharing the exact same name with.

    The “old ways” bit is harder. Not having read the book myself, I wondered at first if it might be the author’s way of saying Eliza isn’t going to embrace the “cold, wise, calculated, martial-arts-throwin’ badass” Asian woman stereotype, but if that’s the case, it seems like it would have been better explained and not cropped up as much. Not knowing what her ancestor was famous for, if Eliza Chen was famous for the same sorts of things Eliza Hardison is interested in and known for, then it might be a way of saying, “I don’t do things the way my ancestor did. I have my own ways. Stop comparing me to her.” Alternately, if Eliza Chen is famous for something else entirely, Eliza Hardison might then be saying, “I’m not going to follow in my family’s footsteps. I’m doing my own thing.” Without reading the book myself, though, I can only speculate.

    I love Delphine Dryden’s work, mostly, but I do wonder if when an author isn’t the ethnicity their characters are (Delphine appears to be white), people tend to be more predisposed to read into the things those characters are and do because, well, us white folk don’t have the best track record when it comes to depicting non-white-folk in our media. An author intends for something to be taken one way, and it winds up being interpreted another, mostly because people who aren’t white have decidedly different experiences. Even if your characters live in a magical utopia where colour doesn’t matter and everyone is equal and nobody says an unkind word that isn’t solely about character and not colour, WE don’t, and thus everything the characters say and do is seen through the filter of our own lives and experiences.

    For example, I (Scottish/Native-American) read a book a while back with a Native American side character, and though the author likely just intended for the character to be awesome and smart and badass like all the others because the heritage and culture was never once brought up aside from the description, my attitude towards that character was sort of sour because they seemed like just another wise, unflappable, one-with-nature Native American stereotype. It’s like… everyone talks about having characters who just “happen” to be whatever race they are, but for all of us, our race and culture IS part of our character and lives (even if just in small ways) and who we are and to not include it at ALL rings just as false as if it were included as a stereotype. Having a Hispanic or Asian or Indian or Native American or WHATEVER character who seems to have zero to do with their culture beyond skin tone and perhaps a name is how white-washing happens… you don’t need to have your Latina character call everyone Papi and be super sassy and drop Spanish every other word, but it’s also nice to acknowledge and celebrate the things that make our cultures distinct. The difference between “Oh, I don’t see colour” and “I see colour, and I think all of it is cool and awesome and distinct”.

    It’s got to be a difficult row to hoe… trying to create a character of a non-white ethnicity who is realistically and recognizably part of their culture without tipping over into tropes and hurtful or bland characterizations. Does any of this make sense? Am I rambling? It’s hard for me to articulate this. I guess the TL;DR is that a white author writing about an Asian woman who seems to be rejecting her family and heritage throws up a lot more red flags than an Asian woman writing about the exact same thing even if the intent is the same.

  2. 2
    Kelly S. says:

    I had to take a closer look at that cover.  The dude is so disconnected.  Why the double belt?  Her pants are seriously too low, but at least she’s engaged.  Love the look the look she’s giving.  Also, her arm is the same width (super skinny) as her wrist all the way up to her sleeve.  That seems wrong.

  3. 3
    CarrieS says:

    Looks like I have to log on and fix some typos, like, 1000 of them.  Anyone want to copy edit my life for food?  I would pay with cookies.

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