The ebook version I got of The Girl in the Steel Corset came with the prequel novella, called The Strange Case of Finley Jayne. Oddly, I think if I hadn’t read the prequel first, I may have enjoyed the actual novel more.
But as it was, while I really liked The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, I couldn’t finish The Girl in the Steel Corset.
In The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, we meet Finley just as she has lost her position in an aristocratic household. Not just for punching the governess, but because Finley did so hard enough to shatter the woman’s teeth and send her flying across the room. Not exactly something a teenage girl ought to be able to do.
Finley is worried about losing her job, worried about telling her parents, and worried more about this strange “darkness” that seems to overtake her whenever she gets frightened or angry enough. It makes her stronger, faster, and enhances her senses, but it also makes her bolder and more violent. She has no idea what’s wrong with her, but it terrifies her.
The very next day, however, Finley is offered a position as a lady’s maid in Lady Morton’s household. The job seems too good to be true, but curious, Finley accepts anyway. It turns out the lady is well aware of Finley’s more violent tendencies, and is hoping to use them to protect her daughter, Phoebe.
I really liked this novella for a number of reasons. For one, the story perfectly fit the novella format, which is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Sometimes authors try to do too much for a short format, but this one works.
Finley’s dual nature is interesting, though sometimes it was difficult to tell which version of her viewpoint we were supposed to be in. It still very much feels like it’s the same person whether her darker nature or her more timid nature is in control.
Plus, even if Finley’s darker nature is more violent, it’s also very protective. She essentially acts as a bodyguard for Phoebe, and does a phenomenal job of it. She punched the governess at the beginning of the story because the governess struck a young boy for trying to take a treat off a cart. It’s great when she’s in that mindset, because she’s bolder and brasher, but not stupid about it. I loved watching Finley investigate the mystery.
I also really liked Lady Morton. She really wants nothing more than to protect her daughter and make sure she’s happy, and she’ll do that by whatever means necessary. She knows something’s not right, but she also knows she’s not in a position to fix it. That’s where Finley comes in.
We don’t get a whole lot of worldbuilding in the novella, but there’s enough that the steampunk aspects don’t feel entirely like window dressing. There’s a great scene with two runaway mechanical horses that was easily my favorite in the entire novella.
There was one little part from the villain’s viewpoint that felt really extraneous—Finley figured out the information shared in that scene in the very next chapter and it didn’t add anything else except perhaps to confirm that said villain was, in fact, a villain.
But really, that scene was the only serious misstep. Other than that, The Strange Case of Finley Jayne was a solidly entertaining novella.
And I enjoyed it enough that I was looking forward to reading The Girl in the Steel Corset, which started off well. Once again, Finley is facing trouble at her job, but this time it’s from the young lord of the house, who is trying to force himself on her. With the help of her darker nature, Finley beats him into unconsciousness and then runs away—straight into the velocycle (motorcycle) of Griffin King, the Duke of Greythorne.
What Finley doesn’t know is that Griffin and his friends have special powers, much like her, and for the first time, Finley starts to feel like she might be able to belong somewhere. However, a devious criminal mastermind called the Machinist threatens to tear their group—and England—apart.
The novel starts off great. I loved the scene at the beginning between Finley and Lord Felix, their fight, and the terror and excitement warring within her. Unfortunately, as soon as that scene is over, the story seems to dive right into solidly mediocre territory and stay there.
My biggest problem with the novel came because of the apparently fluid nature of Finley’s darker side. In the novella, Finley gets violent, but not murderously so. She never hurts Phoebe or Lady Morton, and only neutralizes people she perceives as threats to those she cares about. And she’s much the same way in The Girl in the Steel Corset, only she’s protecting herself.
So it really surprised me how quick others—and even Finley herself—were to accuse her of murder. It just seemed so at odds with how she’d acted, even when her darker half was in control, that I couldn’t really reconcile it.
Then there was the standard love triangle with Finley, Griffin, and an underground crime lord named Jack Dandy that I think was supposed to illustrate the difference between Finley’s two natures and what they found attractive, but really just made me roll my eyes.
Honestly, none of the viewpoint characters were really that interesting to me and the ones that were—like Emily—weren’t on the page enough to make me feel like reading was worth it.
Then I had a number of issues with the writing itself.
Problem the First: Finley’s dual personas
Once again, there wasn’t a marked difference in narrative between Finley’s split personalities. While that wasn’t as big of a deal in the novella, in the full novel, it’s an issue, particularly since reconciling Finley’s dual natures is a plot point.
Her darker nature didn’t seem to be awful enough for me to understand why she was so upset about it, particularly since she’d made it work for her so well in The Strange Case of Finley Jayne. It’s almost like she takes a step backward as a character by the beginning of the novel.
Problem the Second: Plot and character inconsistencies
There also seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies between the prequel novella and the novel. For example, in The Girl in the Steel Corset, Finley thinks, regarding a ball:
She’d never been to one before—not as a guest. She’d sat in a stupid room with other ladies maids and tapped her foot to the music while sipping warm lemonade, but never had she been one of the dancers or a debutante in a beautiful gown.
However, in The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, Finley attends an engagement ball not as Phoebe’s maid, but posing as her cousin from the country. Considering that scene and that plot point are such a huge part of the novella, you’d think Finley would have remembered. That kind of character and story inconsistency is, sadly, prevalent throughout the entire novel.
I can totally understand the prequel novella was most likely written second. But in that case, you really ought to make sure that the character and their life story syncs up with where they are at the beginning of the actual novel.
Problem the Third: Pete and repeat were on a boat…
Cross tends to repeat herself in the narration, so certain paragraphs or exchanges feel twice as long as they should be.
Jasper made a face at his mention of the subterranean railway. The cowboy didn’t like tight spaces any more than Griffin did.
“No,” Griff remarked with a small smile. “I don’t like it either.”
How is “The cowboy didn’t like tight spaces any more than Griffin did” any kind of necessary if Griffin is going to tell us in the very next line that he doesn’t like the subway either?
This kind of repetition is annoying as hell to read, and it happens multiple times throughout the book. It’s almost like another editing pass could probably have cut another thousand words out just by removing superfluous sentences.
Problem the Fourth: Whose head are we in?
Cross occasionally has some absolutely wonderful lines, like this one at the beginning of chapter 5:
If the city of London was a body, Whitechapel would be the groin; a great unwashed area that only showed itself under the cover of darkness, and only for the most salacious of entertainments.
Unfortunately, this is then tempered by the fact that it then takes three pages to get to whose viewpoint we’re in (there are three different viewpoint characters), so by the time I found out it was Finley, I had already spent two paragraphs thinking it was one of the guys. It was jarring to realize I was wrong, which threw me out of the story.
Finally, at chapter 14, when I realized I was reading more out of duty as opposed to getting any real enjoyment out of it, I called it quits. It wasn’t necessarily bad, per se, but overall it seemed to be solidly mediocre, with enough irritating bits that the few good things couldn’t quite compensate.