Author: Anna Butler
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages/Word Count: 314 Pages
At a Glance: When this novel gets a good head of steam going, it’s an adventurous and entertaining jaunt through an alternate reality London.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: When Captain Rafe Lancaster is invalided out of the Britannic Imperium’s Aero Corps after crashing his aerofighter during the Second Boer War, his eyesight is damaged permanently, and his career as a fighter pilot is over. Returning to Londinium in late November 1899, he’s lost the skies he loved, has no place in a society ruled by an elite oligarchy of powerful Houses, and is hard up, homeless, and in desperate need of a new direction in life.
Everything changes when he buys a coffeehouse near the Britannic Imperium Museum in Bloomsbury, the haunt of Aegyptologists. For the first time in years, Rafe is free to be himself. In a city powered by luminiferous aether and phlogiston, and where powerful men use House assassins to target their rivals, Rafe must navigate dangerous politics, deal with a jealous and possessive ex-lover, learn to make the best coffee in Londinium, and fend off murder and kidnap attempts before he can find happiness with the man he loves.
Review: With a good dose of creativity in its historical setting, Anna Butler’s The Gilded Scarab is a fun mix of danger, intrigue, and romance narrated by Captain Rafe Lancaster, late of her majesty’s royal aeroforce.
A complex structure of a House caste system, which lends its politics to the intrigue, coupled with the world building of Londinium, the author’s steampunk version of Victorian London, give this novel a bit of a slow start as we follow Rafe from the disastrous ending of his final flight as an aerofighter to his new career as barista and owner of a coffee shop. There’s much detail to lay out in order to ground readers in the setting, some of which I felt was filler that didn’t end up serving the greater plot, but once things hit their stride, the action and foul play builds to a brisk and exciting climax.
Rafe, as narrator of this novel, is an interesting mix of ego and charm, and leaves one wondering, at times, if he’s purposely obtuse or truly is as oblivious of himself and his emotions as it seems. Whichever it is, it adds a bit of cheek to his charm, and I found he’d grown on me in a rather stealthy way before I knew it. His relationship with his own House—or non-relationship, as the case may be—was an added strength to his character, allowing readers to appreciate his distancing himself from the politics of the system and living his life on his own terms. Although, the cutthroat worlds of coffee and Aegyptology did go a long way to complicate Rafe’s life on their own.
As for Rafe’s romantic entanglements, since the blurb is mostly vague on that count, I will be as well. As befits the setting of the novel, he frequents Londinium’s gentlemen’s clubs to find companionship, which he does—one encounter highlighting how unacquainted he is with his own feelings, another how unreceptive he is to the idea of falling in love. Both men end up complicating Rafe’s life in his own way, and for various reasons, but the end result is an added layer of intrigue to the storyline, and a sweet and satisfying ending for our hero.
As an added bonus, there are some wonderful side characters to root for in The Gilded Scarab, one of which is Sam Hawkins, loyal bodyguard; and Hugh Peters, faithful friend; along with various other friends and allies who help Rafe realize his happy ending. They band together as a league of heroes committed to never leaving a man behind, and the excitement builds at a great pace as they get closer to their target.
As steampunk romances go, when this novel gets a good head of its own steam going, it’s an adventurous and entertaining jaunt through an alternate reality London.
You can buy The Gilded Scarab here: