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.