The beginning of this book was not what I thought it would be. I’m not sure what I thought it would be, but it wasn’t this. This is a super old school whodunnit murder mystery Gaslamp-horror. It uses the “dwindling party” trope that you’ve probably seen a lot — think Clue, or parodies/comedies like Futurama have done episodes based around this trope where a bunch of people, usually stuck in a confined area, are being murdered one by one and there’s a leader trying to figure out whodunnit.
The main character of this book, Isabeau, is a huntress. She arrives at this Inn with a mission — kill her quarry. She’s tracking down a shapeshifter who can take over the minds/bodies of their victims, utterly absorbing the victim a person, not just inhabiting/shifting to look like them physically, but they absorb all their victim’s memories — but not their emotions.
This could have gone very poorly for me since this is a very well-known “overdone” trope that I’ve seen many times– but it was well executed and held my attention. There were unique and vibrant “add-ons” to the world that set it apart from a typical steampunk Gaslamp fantasy. Many of these random touches had a sense of the macabre, which is why I classified it as a Gaslamp-horror. There are beings known as “living doll girls” and are what they sound like — they’re undead humans who have muted emotions and intellectual abilities and serve doing menial tasks. The one in this book was working as a hostess in the hotel where Isabeau was investigating/hunting down her monster. Living doll girls have their mouths sewn shut, and so she was a silent, creepy addition to the atmosphere. Along with her, there are beings known as “malforms” and are the results of when a human gives up on their life and starts to take on the form of some other creature they more identify with. As the cover hints at, Ralph liked spiders.
There were just a lot of really cool world building elements that were crammed into a fairly intimate setting which can be difficult to do. The whole book takes place in a single location with the same small cast of characters which can feel claustrophobic a bit and can also be limiting, but here I found it worked well. As is typical in this genre/trope of dwindling party, the character types are somewhat exaggerated and verging on becoming caricatures. But this book did not stray so far as to make them two dimensional, at least in my opinion. There are a bunch of very classic Victorian-like seances where everyone sits in a circle, there’s a scrying crystal, and one medium speaking to the spirits while everyone else listens. It’s got a classic, familiar feel to it.
This book read very quickly and despite having some darker undertones it also had a lot of levity, with slapstick humor and other comedic situations taking place alongside the murders making it a very contrasting kind of book. I personally really enjoyed that aspect of it. The writing style has a voice of its own, it’s distinct, it feels well practiced and edited, and in the narrative it always worked for me. However, the dialogue/monologuing at the end was not exactly my cup of tea. There would come a time when Isabeau would go over her thoughts out-loud to all the guests, and tell them all who she thinks the murderer is, and why or why not each of the guests is a suspect or not. It breaks down the plot points, motivations of the characters, and other critical info in a huge info dump. That said, this is almost a quintessential part of this trope, and almost every time I see this trope used it comes with these sorts of scenes. It didn’t work for me, but it might work for you.
I also have to say every time I read the word “boom stick” this is the only thing that went through my mind.
Overall, this was a fun read and I recommend it to anyone who thought this summary sounds good to them. It’s witty, it’s fast, but it’s also very tropey so your mileage may vary. That said, it’s free on KU so if you’ve got that subscription it’s worth a free try for sure!