Few pitches work on me faster than an author who explains her book clearly, and tells me how proud she is of her book. The author of this book pitched the story to me, and despite it not being a match to what I usually read, I was intrigued not only but the description but by her enthusiasm for her book. This story is a mix of historical, paranormal, magical realism, possibly steampunk, and maybe even science fiction. If I think about it long enough, I could probably make an argument for it being a military thriller romance, too.
Tessa Ryder has a Gift (yes, capital G – some folks have a Gift, and most folks don't, and those who don't are usually unaware that there are those who do). Tessa's Gift allows her to change her form – painfully, poor thing – so that she looks exactly like someone else. As an added bonus, sort of like a gift with purchase that's far more useful than another sample size of mascara, she also gets shadows of that person's memories and thoughts while she's trying on their form for awhile. This Gift made Tessa marvelously useful during the Napoleonic Wars, where her father served, and, after her Gift was fully discovered, she did as well – though entirely in secret as part of the “Omega Group.” Tessa's father and Tessa served with Wellington personally, but now that the war is over, Tessa is not terribly busy.
Then she learns of a plot to kill all the Omegas, and free Napoleon. Determined to warn Sebastian Montague, one of the Omegas she served with, she takes the form of his former mistress and meets with him at a very well attended party.
Tessa can't go find him as herself because despite being very, very close during the war (yes, that kind of very, very close), he has no memory of her at all now because she had his memory wiped clean of her existence.
Unfortunately for Tessa, Sebastian has been warned that someone masquerading as his former mistress will be trying to dance with him at the party, so he's ready for her. He's also prepared to kill her, whomever she is, using his own Gift, which produces terribly real hallucinations that can convince people they're drowning, suffocating, or on fire, even when they're not.
Before he can kill her, they are attacked, and they are both on the run from whomever is trying to kill the Omegas – and whomever is trying to stop Tessa and Sebastian.
This is a very short but very fast-action novella, with a lot of derring-do and shifting of forms, and people who have some freaky-ass, scary Gifts. Human flame thrower? Check. Telepathic assault weapons? Check. Possession of someone's body? Also check. Seriously. There is a hot mess of superpowers in this world.
Tessa and Sebastian's conflict is doubled by the fact that he's attracted to her though he can't remember who she really is, and she's never stopped loving him despite having his memory wiped. They have to untangle their emotions and history while also figuring out who is kidnapping and killing the other Omegas, and what they're trying to do.
I liked Tessa, I liked Sebastian, I liked how attracted they were to one another – with or without their full compliment of memories – and I was fascinated by the variations of powers and abilities, and how the author wove them into historical fact.
The problem was that, for me, there was way, way too much telling. Pages and pages of backstory dumped on the reader to either establish empathy for the character – and that request for empathy is made by dispensing a tale of a sad and lonely childhood by the heaping spoonful – or to bring the reader up to speed on what is a rather complex mission and rewriting of history. Tessa has “powerful yearnings” and mentions frequently that she “never stopped loving” Sebastian, but there aren't that many scenes that depict her being affected by those yearnings, beyond her talking about them some more.
Sebastian is both familiar and less developed than Tessa. He's familiar because romance is replete with the abused lonely lord's childhood, especially one wherein he is ostracized for his looks, both when he's young and when he's older, though for separate reasons. He's less developed and has less of a full arc as a character. For example, he's the one who has had a most painful violation of his sanity visited upon him, and he doesn't react with nearly enough anger given how his character is otherwise depicted. When I understood the full scope of how Tessa removed his memories of her, I thought that the minute he found out, massive Gifty shit would hit the Gifted fan, but it didn't. His reaction was more muted than I expected, especially given what I was told (TOLD) about their history and the emotions he felt for her.
There is a LOT of action packed into this novella, and while there's not quite enough conflict to make a full story, the integration of magic and Gifts into that period of history was fascinating. I loved that Tessa was determined to use her Gifts, despite the costs she paid for doing so, and that she functioned with a peculiar but understandable degree of autonomy within her world. Alas, Sebastian was so anachronistic at times, he might has well have danced Gangnam Style at the ball. But the variety of talents and the way the characters handle (or endure) them made up for some of the faults of the underdeveloped hero. Even with those flaws, I'm curious to see what this author writes next in this world.