The Curse of the Brimstone Contract by Corrina Lawson is the Steampunk Detectives series debut, featuring a woman who learns she possesses magical abilities after a garment of her design kills a client (available April 29, 2014).
Joan Krieger is very excited to present her new clothing creations to the fashion forward Lady Grey, but when Lady Grey discovers a scarf among her new clothes, a scarf that shouldn’t have been there, she is delighted and insists on wearing it. Outfitted in her progressive new duds, she climbs into her steam carriage for an outing, but it’s a doomed outing, because the scarf suddenly takes on a life of its own, and soon, Lady Grey’s life is snuffed out. Joan and her mother are horrified. They’ve had a run of bad luck with clients recently who died while wearing their creations, and it’s threatening their very livelihood. To Joan’s horror, as soon as her father, who has been ill, hears of the most recent catastrophe, he informs her that she has been promised to a certain Sir August Milverton, who has vowed to help their business stay afloat once they are married. However, Sir August is not only two decades her senior, but he’s also not Jewish. Joan struggles with the desire to help her family and her wish to marry someone within her faith.
Desperate for answers, she seeks the help of Gregor Sherringford, who seems to have a talent for solving odd cases. Joan seeks Sherringford out, and is immediately intrigued, after a bit of an abrupt start, by a man who seems to have mage magic at his fingertips:
“For hell’s sake, you had better be the devil himself to interrupt my work!” a voice boomed.
“I am sorry,” Joan snapped as she walked into the room. “I seem to have quite forgotten to wear my horns.”
She bit her tongue. All her prepared speeches, all her rehearsed pleas for help, and this was how she’d begun? Truly, her nerves were at breakpoint. A man stared rudely at her, though she supposed he had cause. Still, she could not help but stare back. She had anticipated an eccentric. She had not expected him to be so pleasing to the eye. There were faint lines around his mouth, his brown hair was thick and full, and his skin was an olive-brown shade that set off his dark eyes nicely. His clean-shaven face revealed a jaw that hinted at a strong character. Gregor Sherringford seemed a champion, indeed.
He’s not the only one making an impression on Joan. He watches Joan closely to gauge her reaction to his many contraptions crowding his workroom, as he considers those that react badly or negatively unworthy of his time. It’s a good thing Joan is fascinated and intrigued by the gadgets and books that surround her. Joan shares her problem with Sherringford and he agrees to take the case, but not before noticing that Joan may have a bit of mage power of her own. She’s fascinated with the idea that she may possess magical talent and presses him on the matter. He points out a piece of jewelry she’s wearing that is a family heirloom and may be acting as a focus for her own unharnessed power. He explains that it’s probably kept her safe:
“The focus does exactly what it was designed to do: protect the wearer even if the mage talent isn’t wielded deliberately. Unless you have training, it’s impossible to do more than that with it. Alas, it is illegal to train those not of the noble classes. It is said that the working men cannot be trusted with powers.”
There was an edge to that statement. “You don’t agree with that.”
“I have seen to many noblemen misuse their power to believe that wrongdoing is solely limited to the rest of us.”
Joan is overwhelmingly intrigued at the prospect of being properly trained in magic and asks Sherringford to train her. He demurs, however, citing the need to get to work on the problem at hand, but it’s not an idea that Joan will soon forget.
Imagine being a girl like Joan; a seamstress besieged by a string of bad luck involving her creations, with a family in turmoil, and promised to a much older man that so far has only made her skin crawl. The thought that she might have magic talent is intoxicating in its exoticness and promises a freedom she’s never experienced before. Her attraction to Sherringford is another thing, however, and she knows that she must try not to focus on that since there are more important things at hand, like finding out why her scarf attacked Lady Grey. She’s not going to be able to ignore that attraction for long, and as she and Sherrington pursue the clues separately, and together, she finds out that magic has always been much closer to her then she ever could have imagined.
What at first seems like a fun, magic infused mystery, turned out to be quite a bit more. Joan is seemingly bound by not only her social status, but also her family obligations, and not only does magic mean a way out, it helps to gives her the courage to assert herself and take control of her destiny. There is a bit of light romance, but this is Joan’s journey, and the steampunk-tinged setting of Victorian London (and the clothes, oh, the clothes!) is icing on the cake.
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