I love steampunk sooooo very much. Something about all those gears and goggles and mad scientists running around in improbable corsetry just enchants my very soul. So, I was very excited to read The Twisted Tale of Stormy Gale, by Christine Bell. Given the subject matter of a time traveler with a fondness for The Wizard of Oz, a character named “The Loony Duke of Leister”, and steampunk elements galore, I was hoping it would be a lot of fun. Given the brevity of the book (really more of a novella, at only 25,900 words) I was concerned that it would feel too rushed. As it turns out, I was right on both counts, but it was also more emotionally moving than I expected it to be.
Once upon a time there were these two Victorian guttersnipe brother and sister orphans who were rescued from the streets by a time traveler from our present day. Now, in 2010 (ok, slightly previously to now, which is 2011, which is why time travel themes give me headaches), the two urchins are grown up and they time travel for a living, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like steampunk Robin Hoods with father issues. During a trip back to Victorian England, the brother, who is the younger sibling and bears a startling resemblance in personality to a bouncy, affectionate, and havoc-wreaking puppy, lost his time travelling device to The Loony Duke in a card game. Now, Stormy (the sister) has to get the device back from the Duke, who turns out to be a mad scientist who is trying to reconstruct the device. Of course he’s a mad scientist. Would you, the reader, settle for a sane scientist? No, you would not, and neither would I. So, he’s a mad scientist – OR IS HE?
Before I talk about the romance, I just have to spend a paragraph on names. Obviously, the name “Stormy Gale” is a shout-out to the Wizard of Oz series. In fact, it turns out that Stormy picked the name “Dorothy Gale” as her new name when she was brought to the semi-present time to live a new life, and saw “The Wizard of Oz” on TV. “Stormy” is her nickname. Names are important in this story. “The Loony Duke” experiences great pain because of his nickname, which ties into the horrific consequences he experienced as a result of being deemed insane in his adolescence. My favorite back-story regarding a name belongs to Bacon. Bacon’s full name and the reason he chose it comprises just a few glorious sentences that by far make the book worth buying. No, I’m not going to tell you what his full name is. I will spoil many things in a review, but this reveal is sacred even to me. I like to think that his name is also a shout-out to Francis Bacon, the greatest mad scientist of all time, but that’s pure speculation on my part.
On to the romance. Stormy dresses up as sort of a slutty gypsy (as one does) to try to trick the Duke into revealing the whereabouts of her brother’s time travelling device. This device looks sort of like a pocket watch, so the Duke could have it hidden at his home or be carrying it on his devastatingly handsome person. Stormy sets up a fortunetelling tent at the local fair. The moment the Duke steps into the tent, she is of course stricken by overwhelming lust. I have to confess that while I’m fine with the concept of instant attraction, the whole instant mad lust thing often bugs me. By “instant mad lust”, I mean overwhelming feelings that the person being seen for the first time is not just extremely attractive, but is the most gorgeous creature that has ever existed. All too often authors seem to assume that they don’t have to show the reader the process of the two main characters falling in love, because they fell in lust at first sight and knew, on a least a hormonal level, that they were soul mates. If an author works with the mad lust thing and shows it playing into a deeper relationship, that’s fine (Jennifer Crusie uses it in Bet Me to both steamy and hilarious effect), but using it as a shortcut is cheating, and we all know that cheating is eeeeeevil.
Anyway, Stormy experiences the mad lust but pulls herself together enough to try to con the duke. The next thing you know, plot twists have occurred, the inevitable sex is underway, and all of a sudden the Duke is gasping, “I love you!” At which point I said, “Huh?” Seriously, there was everything to indicate that the Duke and Stormy were attracted to each other and were going to fall in love, but there was nothing to indicate that the “in love” phase of the relationship had actually occurred. For one thing, they had only spent a few hours together. There’s some back-story that I cannot reveal, but it doesn’t suggest a romantic bond either. It’s as though the author had this great lead up to a courtship and then thought, “Screw the courtship/build of feelings phase, I have to keep this to 25,900 words”, and just skipped three or four chapters to move the story ahead. I can only suspect that the author figured the mad lust shortcut would suffice to tell the story, but it didn’t. This was a truly dizzying development and by far the weakest aspect to the book
I have some other problems with the story. First of all, WHAT IS SHE WEARING? I am alluding here to Stormy’s “gypsy” costume. Her gypsy costume, which she wears to a Victorian Era small town fair in New England (where the duke relocated after winning the device), consists of a flowered skirt, an off the shoulder cleavage-revealing blouse that she ties at her midriff, no underwear of any type, red lipstick, loose hair, and giant earrings. I don’t think this would have made people in Connecticut in 1836 think that Stormy was a gypsy, although it may have made them think that she was a freakish lunatic whore. Someone back me up here, or else tell me I’m wrong, because I am no expert in historical fashion, but I don’t buy it. I also had a problem with Stormy’s use of slang. I didn’t mind her using a lot of modern day references to things, because I think the author was trying to anchor the character for us, and I really believe that Stormy would miss Starbucks coffee and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream when she travels in time. But I don’t believe she would say, “dude” in the middle of a desperate emotional plea to her soul mate.
Now, I realize that I just spent the last three paragraphs listing the substantial problems I have with the romance and other details. But oddly, even though the “I love you” was completely out of left field, I did buy that these two people needed to be together. The banter between them in the gypsy tent, and the unexpected seriousness they fell into as they bantered, was entertaining and compelling. I could see the kind of relationship they would have if they had had more pages to have it in, and how relaxed and perceptive they were able to be with each other. I could also see how much they needed each other. They had common interests, a common outlook on the world, and above all a shared background of profound isolation. Stormy only has emotional ties to one person, her brother, and the Duke is completely alone. They are both haunted by memories and unable to make connections, and they need each other to heal. I was invested in them as a couple to a degree that surprised me.
Can I just say how much I hate giving out the letter grades? I just can’t get the hang of it. There are a lot of problems with The Twisted Tale, mostly due to it being too darn short. On the one hand, I tend to grade on a bit of a curve with a novella, because there’s only so much you can do in so few words. But that is blatantly unfair to the masters of novella writing who work carefully within their word limit to make a small but complete story. Given the abruptness with which the protagonists of The Twisted Tale find true love, and the startling anachronism of Stormy’s gypsy outfit, not to mention the afore-mentioned use of the word, “Dude”, this probably merits a C. But I truly enjoyed this story. Its charms outweighed its flaws so throughly that I wanted to pick it up again and re-read it as soon as I finished. I had an amazing amount of fun (even when I was rolling my eyes a little), and I was moved, and the epilogue made me feel all warm and fuzzy. I really believed in the HEA and it was profoundly satisfying. I can’t picture giving something I enjoyed so much a C. So, in honor of the sum of the whole being greater than its parts, I’m giving Twisted a solid B. I can’t wait to read more from author Christine Bell. More steampunk, please, Christine, but don’t stint on the number of pages!