The only bad thing about this book is that it ends. This book is a sublime example of how to do character-driven speculative fiction (specifically, steampunk). I loved the characters, I loved the setting, I loved the world building, and boy howdy did I love the romance.
The plot: Kali came to Liverpool from India to work as an engineer. In the bombing of Liverpool, she lost a leg. She goes to the windy, rainy island of Eilean Comhachag in hopes of finding solitude and emotional healing. Instead, she finds a crashed airship and a man named Fletcher. Fletcher is a Man O’ War, a man who has been mechanically modified for extra size and strength, and for a close technological link to the airship he captains. Both Kali and Fletcher are deeply emotionally scarred from war but very slowly they form a bond that is tested when they have reason to return to the outside world.
Skies of Gold is the latest in the Ether Chronicles series. The only other book I'd read in the series was the somewhat disappointing Night of Fire, by Nico Rosso, and it doesn't relate closely to Skies. I had no problem jumping into the series with Skies of Gold. The world building is so smoothly integrated that I felt immersed in the world with nary a passage of awkward exposition. Characters from other books are alluded to briefly, but just enough to give the sense that all the books take place on the same stage. This book is a great stand-alone book, although it did make me want to read the other books right away.
I think my favorite thing about Skies of Gold is that it takes its time. I read a lot of books that involve maniacal levels of action, but sometimes I just wish everyone would sit down for five freaking minutes and have a conversation. In Skies, most of the book consists of Fletcher and Kali hanging out on the island. They make repairs to Kali's cottage and to Fletcher's airship, they fish and hike and do target practice – basically, they hang out, albeit in mildly challenging living conditions. The book is actually pretty short, but it feels leisurely (not boring or dragging – just relaxed).
I'm pretty prudish about sex scenes and I have a bad habit of skimming them (it's a bad habit for a reviewer, I mean – I don't care whether you skim them or not). I absolutely could not skip a single word of the sex scene in this book. Both Fletcher and Kali are apprehensive about nudity. Fletcher's last lover reacted to his modified body with revulsion. Kali has never shown anyone the stump where her leg was amputated. This scene is awkward, brave, and beautiful, as both parties face their insecurities (and work out some size issues, since Fletcher’s modifications made him large, umm, everywhere). Here's an excerpt:
There was no hiding now. It wasn’t a smooth joining of metal and flesh like his telumium implants. This was much more crude, despite all her technological skill. Most of her leg was gone. It had been so ruined by the collapsing building, saving it would have been impossible. At least she’d been unconscious when they amputated.
The straps against her skin were not erotic. They spoke of a terrible injury, and the limitations of human ingenuity – and kindness. It was ugly, and she knew it.
She waited for Fletcher to turn away, or the shadow of revulsion to pass across his face. Instead his gaze slowly moved over her prosthesis – it took everything she had not to run from his gaze – to her thigh. But he also looked at the dark triangle between her legs, barely hidden by the chemise, and she saw not disgust in his eyes but desire. His gaze continued upward, until their eyes locked.
“What a warrior you are,” he breathed. “A beautiful warrior”.
I offer this scene as Exhibit A to anyone who equates romance novels as porn. If one defines porn as the depiction of sex for no purpose other than titillation, I say this: I don't think that porn (using that definition, which I just made up) is necessarily a bad thing – but this scene is not it. It's plenty erotic, all right, and very explicit and detailed. It's also an exploration of these two characters and of their relationship. And, speaking as a person with profound body image issues, partially related to extensive scarring, this scene is profoundly moving and affirming.
I hesitate to just write a review that’s a laundry list of all the things I liked, but there were endless touches of brilliance:
There was the subtly and the practicality of the steampunk aspects. Steampunk isn’t valued here because it’s cool – it’s because it works, and it makes life bearable. It is an integral part of the world, not some shiny overlay for effect. The fact that it’s cool is a side effect, not it’s reason for being.
There was the way fight scenes worked. When Fletcher is fighting, it’s a whole over the top, melodramatic steampunky thing as befits a really large technologically enhanced super-warrior. But when Kali fights, she doesn’t suddenly develop super powers. Instead she has skills – skills with weapons that we have already watched her learn to use, self-defense skills of the type that any woman, more or less regardless of physical ability, should be able to learn to use is given the opportunity, and skills that come from her technical knowledge.
- There was the way Fletcher and Kali help each other heal, the presents they bring one another, the respect they offer, whole romance over all – they are simply marvelous characters, alone and together.
If I must find fault with the book, it’s that the action at the end seemed somewhat contrived. It was well executed, but it seemed less like an organic part of the story and more like something tacked on to get the characters off the island. And I know this is cynical of me, but I didn’t quite buy the happy ending. I bought that the two characters would stay together, just not the details of Fletcher’s life. An extra few pages between the end of the last chapter and the epilogue, or even an additional chapter, would have helped enormously with making the ending convincing and powerful instead of making it seems a little pat.
But honestly, at the end of the day, what I’m left with is the memory of Kali’s first flight, and the clockwork cricket, and what Fletcher says when Kali takes the prosthesis all the way off (you’ll love it). I’m left with a strong sense of place and time and history without anyone actually telling me about them- they are just there, fully realized, on the page. This is a beautiful book and a wonderful romance.