I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
After reading the book's official description and excerpt, I think I expected Lucio to be something like Inara from the TV show Firefly: elegant, cultured, and relatively in control of his life. Maybe he didn't always like his clients, but he could choose to leave behind and never see again any client who really crossed the line.
Yeah, not so much. Over and over, readers were shown how awful Lucio's life really was under its pretty, cushy surface. As long as they were offered enough money, Lucio's handlers seemed less than concerned with his well-being. They arranged for him to meet a client they knew would brutalize him, and then they expected him to get back to work before he was fully healed. The book's first sex scene involved Lucio and one of his clients (who readers were later expected to think of as Gabriel and Lucio's ally) and focused on Lucio's feelings of degradation, which he had never felt so intensely prior to meeting Gabriel. Unless Lucio met with clients and did what they paid him to do, he wasn't given anything to eat. The details about the breeding barns were icing on the horrible cake.
I read this book shortly after finishing Meljean Brook's The Iron Duke, and I think The Iron Duke spoiled me. I was hungry for another exciting steampunk novel. What I expected was another book set in a vivid, rich, interesting, and probably gritty world. What I got was thin and not nearly as satisfying.
The caste system seemed potentially interesting, at first. The problem was that the caste that received almost all of the book's attention was the pleasure caste, and the details of that caste didn't seem quite consistent. On the one hand, the handlers put a great deal of time and money into training Lucio and others to become companions fit to be paraded around by their largely aristocratic clients. On the other hand, the handlers seemed remarkably willing to throw away their considerable investments. Had Lucio been in his thirties and nearing the end of his usefulness to his handlers, I would have found their willingness to sell his time to someone they knew would torture him somewhat more believable. Cressida, Lucio's friend and another companion, at least talked about being tired of what she was forced to do – I could see the handlers noting her burn-out and deciding that she would be more profitable as a breeder. With Lucio, the details didn't seem to add up. He suddenly went from a pampered, prized companion to someone his handlers felt could be abused without a fuss.
While the caste system was at least somewhat interesting, the same could not be said of Gabriel's inventions.. He invented a mechanical pet dog (I'm guessing something like AIBO robotic pets, only more realistic), a fan capable of cooling an entire room, personal heaters, and a flying chair. I expected better from a steampunk novel. Everything except the flying chair was something I could buy at Walmart. Again, I think I was spoiled by The Iron Duke – where were the amazing prosthetics and imaginative inventions?
A so-so steampunk setting would have been forgivable if the romance was really good. Lucio and Gabriel's initial attraction to each other was fantastic. I liked reading about the first time Gabriel purchased a little of Lucio's time (sort of like their first date), and Tachna managed to surprise me with the way their first time having sex played out.
Unfortunately, the romantic aspects of the book were not without their problems. In her effort to show that Gabriel was not like Lucio's clients, Tachna managed to bring Lucio's clients to my mind during all or most of Gabriel and Lucio's intimate moments. I wanted to read about the two of them together without thinking about Lucio having sex with Lord Stuart or whoever else. I wanted Lucio and Gabriel to get to the point where, when they were together, it was just the two of them, no one else, not even in their own minds. There were maybe only one or two instances where I think Tachna accomplished this, and one of those instances was in a sexual fantasy Lucio wrote for Gabriel in a letter.
Then there was Gabriel's jealousy. Gabriel knew the conditions under which Lucio lived, and he knew Lucio didn't have a choice about what he did, but Gabriel was jealous anyway. I could understand this, up to a point. However, after it seemed like Gabriel had finally gotten beyond his jealousy issues, a blip involving
popped up. I was impressed when Gabriel seemed to come to terms with what happened fairly quickly. Perhaps he had finally grown up, I thought. I didn't mind that he had needed a bit of a breather and some time to collect himself...but then the jealousy popped up again later. I never got the feeling that Gabriel had finally beaten those feelings. Every time I thought he'd gotten over them, they came back. For a guy who was supposedly so understanding about the constraints people of different castes had to live under, Gabriel had a lot of problems accepting the things Lucio had little control over or had to do for his and Cressida's emotional well-being.
The book could have been far shorter than it was, or Tachna could have at least shifted the bulk of the page count some, so that certain things that would have benefited from more attention could have gotten it. So much time was spent on Gabriel trying to overcome his feelings of jealousy, on the horrible things Lucio had to resign himself to doing, on emphasizing how much more different than Lucio's clients Gabriel was, and on Gabriel's efforts to earn more money to buy Lucio's contract. I got frustrated with the characters for not noticing glaringly obvious oncoming problems. No one had any idea how much Lucio's contract would cost – either the handlers wouldn't tell them, or no one felt it was safe to ask. So, instead of having a specific goal, their goal was "as much as we can possibly earn." How were they to know if the amount was even earn-able, or if they had already earned enough? Also, no one seemed to think about
I wanted to love this. The excerpt had me so excited that I bought the book right away, even though I knew an ARe Dreamspinner Press sale was coming up. I wish that it had felt more like Gabriel had grown and gotten past his jealousy issues, that Tachna had written more tender moments between Lucio and Gabriel that hadn't mentioned Lucio's clients, and that the world had felt richer and better developed. I am at least happy that the book ended with Lucio and Gabriel's relationship on what felt like a positive note (if not a completely wrapped up one, since
I'm willing to try Tachna's works again if I come across one that looks interesting to me, but I'm sad that this one turned out to only be so-so.
(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)