In 1897 England, sixteen-year-old Finley Jayne has no one except the “thing” inside her.My experience reading The Girl in the Steel Corset was in a word, puzzling. Yes, it was bad, in obvious, very comprehensible ways, but what I couldn’t grasp was why? What would motivate an author to write a book this bad in this particular way, or a publishing company to just roll with it. And then, when the story had finished, I read the author acknowledgements and it all became clear.
When a young lord tries to take advantage of Finley, she fights back. And wins. But no normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch…
Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she’s special, says she’s one of them. The orphaned duke takes her in from the gaslit streets against the wishes of his band of misfits. Emily, who has her own special abilities and an unrequited love for Sam, who is part robot; and Jasper, an American cowboy with a shadowy secret.
Griffin’s investigating a criminal called The Machinist, the mastermind behind several recent crimes by automatons. Finley thinks she can help – and finally be a part of something, finally fit in.
But The Machinist wants to tear Griff’s little company of strays apart, and it isn’t long before trust is tested on all sides. At least Finley knows whose side she’s on, even if it seems no one believes her.
First of all, I need to thank Krista Stroever, editor extraordinaire. When I told Krista I wanted to write League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets teen X-Men, she replied, “Steampunk. Cool.Bingo. The Girl in the Steel Corset is a comic book in novel’s clothing.
Or perhaps, a better explanation would be that The Girl in the Steel Corset desperately, violently wants to be a comic book, so instead we get an actual book loaded with characters, objects, and concepts with superficial appeal, but no real substance behind them.
But truthfully, even before the real superficial aspects began to show through, Steel Corset Girl and I had some issues. We got off on the wrong foot from page one, as the very first thing that happens to introduce us to our heroine, Miss Finley Jayne, is that her employer’s drunken son attempts to sexually assault her. And a part of her – the dark, “evil” part spoiling for a fight – wants him to, so she can get her ass-kicking on.
Ugh. UGH. UGGGGGGGGH.
This is probably one of the worst possible ways Cross could have introduced me to this story. It’s not just a cliche, not just lazy writing, not just using rape as a plot device, but to top it all off, it sets up this idea that frustrated me throughout the story: the world is out to get Finley Jayne.
She is persecuted for nearly the entire book, antagonized not only by the villain, but by her supposed allies as well, along with, you know, the world in general, not only for nothing, but often for just being a good person). In the first chapter alone she nearly gets raped, decides to run away from her home/job because of it, reflects on how she’s been fired from multiple positions before (which the prequel e-novella seems to indicate is because she stands up for people), then promptly gets hit by a steampunk motorcycle. In the first chapter. Throughout the course of the book she’s investigated for murder and nearly killed multiple times, at least two of which were by members of the GOOD GUYS’ TEAM who were deeply, unjustly skeptical of her motivations. Oh yeah, and she gets involved in a ~socially unacceptable~ love triangle, which allows her to get her inferiority complex on, you know, when other people aren’t doing that for her.
It’s tedious and once again, lazy. It’s a cheap way of drumming up sympathy for Finley, to forge a false emotional connection between her and the reader – after all, you’re more likely to root for a heroine who’s been fucked over by the system, right? But this has become necessary in Steel Corset because on her own, Finley Jayne is an incredibly boring heroine. As with most dual-personality characters, her “good” side is whiny and trembling and scared, her “bad” side a hot-headed, super-strong vixen, and neither is terribly interesting. The good side has all the personality of a wet mop, and while the bad side is more entertaining, her scenes are few and far between, and she’s really just a stock bad-ass character, anyway. There’s not a lot of depth or complexity to either of them.
I’d also like to rave about the truly stereotype-breaking portrayal of Finley’s “bad” being the more socially – and sexually – confident, while the “good” was modest and demure. Gag.
At any rate, Finley is nothing more than your typical Jekyll and Hyde archetype: YA edition. This naturally means that her inner “monster” never does anything dark or evil enough to warrant legitimately be considered a “monster”, but in order for her to score high enough on the Emo and Alienated Meter to have “motivation” for doing stupid things that the plot demands later on, everyone must call her that or treat her like one.
Really though, the entire cast is more archetype than character, which brings me back to the thesis we started out with: Steel Corset is a comic book. It seems as though these characters exist not to be people, exactly, but props, designed with “coolness” – in appearance, manner, and motivation – as the top priority.
Emily, one of the supporting characters, is probably the best example of this. She is our Female Mechanic/Genius, who we are told repeatedly speaks with an Irish brogue, and can pull advanced steam-punk technology out of her ass on request.
Everything about Emily came off as a mix of calculation and indulgence to me. She is a living fangasm; a mechanic because Girl Mechanics are cool, Irish because Irish accents are cool, red-haired because red hair looks cool, etc. Her outfits are hilariously transparently designed to be as cool as possible, while carefully, pointedly showing how much she doesn’t care about what she wears. Because that sort of thing isn’t “cool” for a character like her.
In that way, Emily is the book’s attitude, embodied. What matters is how “cool” an element is, rather than how intelligent, believable, or well-developed. Unfortunately, the characters are not the only area in which this idea is reflected.
If you couldn’t tell from the title, Steel Corset is set in a steampunk world, with a heaping dose of vaguely-defined magical elements wrapped with a pretty sci-fi bow. I’m not normally one to question steampunk technology, because it’s steampunk, and that whole premise pretty much operates on the Rule of Cool, but Cross takes it too far even for me. There’s steampunk texting, steampunk wireless, steampunk INTERNET, steampunk replicants, steampunk handheld electric flashlights, steampunk earpieces and microphones, steampunk fucking HEART TRANSPLANTS for CHRISSAKES.
It wouldn’t be as bad if the contraptions were more creative or original, since that’s half the fun of the genre, but this is all just modern technology existing in a 19th-century novel because it’s WITH STEAM OKAY? Cross needed it, or wanted it, because it would look cool, so we can all just go choke on a dick while our main characters text – er, I mean REMOTE TELEGRAPH each other.
The steampunk elements combine with the mystical ones to make dei ex machina the norm. Our hero character, Griffin King, is the child of explorers (rich, noblemen explorers, mind you) who journeyed to the center of the earth and found plot-convenience magical micro organisms there. These tiny creatures rapidly heal injuries and also apparently alter the biological make-up of people who, IDK, look at them for too long, granting these individuals varied and inconsistent superpowers. While these creatures are essentially the catalyst for the entire plot, we learn virtually nothing about them except that they’re from the center of the earth, make more superheroes than gamma radiation, dead parents, and radioactive spiders combined, and are a cure-all for everything from scrapes to being torn in half ARGHALKNDF.
If micro-organisms and steampunk ANYTHING weren’t limitlessly powerful problem fixers enough for you (and apparently they aren’t for Cross), Steel Girl‘s world also includes a poorly-defined supernatural energy/Otherworld/psychic force known as the Aether, which basically exists to give the main characters new ways to move the plot along. Griffin’s special ability is to manipulate the Aether, which makes both him and Emily walking Deus Ex Machina Generators. Emily’s power is to communicate with machines – you know, the big bad’s primary weapons, and Griffin is so powerful he can break his own world’s goddamn rules, and let’s be clear, there aren’t a whole lot of those to begin with.
The combination of these three elements and their various implications make the plot incredibly difficult to take seriously at best, random hand-waving over BECAUSE I SAID SO at worst. The characters can – and do – do essentially anything they want, except when they can’t, because I said so, and though Cross tries to exposit “logic” and reasoning for why this isn’t so, it’s so much noise and Spackle.
Pacing-wise, Steel Girl is a slow-moving mess. This book is nearly five hundred pages, and it didn’t need to be more than two. There core mystery is, well, kind of obvious. I mean really, when you find out some dude is corrupting steampunk robots and then that he steals the clothes off a wax figure of Queen Victoria, what the fuck do you think his grand master scheme is going to be? But this is just too big a mystery for our heroes to understand, so they take about fifty pages longer to figure it out than they should.
What isn’t mystery-solving is predominately pointless padding. Not content with being limited to just world elements or character tropes, Cross also insisted on including entire scenes that have no point other than looking cool. The Masquerade comes to mind, having no real bearing on the plot despite featuring a) random characters who are described in detail, and then just disappear, b) the titular steel corset, and c) an attempt on Finley’s life that the villain later had to admit was a mistake because it didn’t make any sense.
Cul-de-sacs abound, as well – at one point, Finely leaves Griffin in a fit of emo and runs to alternative love interest Jack for shelter, only to be immediately retrieved by Griffin not five pages later. Then there are plot threads that just go absolutely nowhere – like why, in the last quarter or so of the book, does Griffin randomly develop claustrophobia when it never factors in to the story? Why are we even told about his Aunt Coredelia’s missing husband that she doesn’t truly believe is dead when it’s never brought up again?
And oh God, the inconsistencies, like how, in the end, Griffin refuses to kill the villain because he doesn’t want to grant him greater access to the world of the dead, and then immediately blows up a building on top of him. That’s just one, but they are numerous throughout the book, supposedly explained away through incomprehensible, lazy inner monologue Spackle, but that’s Steel Corset for you – characters do as the plot demands, no matter how stupid, against type, or irrational it may be.
The irony here is that the most interesting aspects of the story remained steadfastly undeveloped. The integration of Finley’s two halves, which by all rights should be a huge, page-consuming subplot, are cut down to one or two scenes in a dojo, meditating, capped off by ~magical tattoos~ that instantly make her two sides one. Again, the micro=organisms are never explained, nor is the development of the good guys’ superpowers, or really any of their crime-fighting undertakings for Queen Victoria. There’s hardly any investigation at all, really. Most of the “grand revelations” just fall into the heroes’ laps. because who wants to write about an investigation when you could be perpetuating not one, but two weak love triangles?
The writing is pedestrian at best, prone to long bouts of telling, with characters mentally expounding on motivations and complexes that are supposed to develop them, but only serve to make them more superficial. Worse yet, Cross frequently re-uses descriptions, and for the LIFE of me, I don’t understand how her editor let that slip. In particular, she kept referring to Emily’s hair as “ropey”. Not once, not twice, but at seven times. How hard is it to describes somebody’s hair with more than one adjective?!
Perhaps worst of all, there are yards, YARDS OF PAPER I SAY, devoted to describing people’s outfits.
This was my biggest pet peeve and tip-off to Cross’ real motivations. She frequently flat-out stops the action to indulge in a little costume porn. Every time Finley came down for breakfast or changed clothes, we heard about it in a head to toe recap, from the kind of shoes she wore to the way her hair was styled. The clothes were never exactly realistic, either – you could always tell Cross was playing literary Barbie, putting Finley and Emily in outfits that probably didn’t exist back then, but are the kind of things you’d see on an exceptionally well-funded cosplayer at a steampunk convention nowadays. It’s just so transparently superficial, serving no purpose but indulging the author’s desire to play dress-up, and it rubbed me in exactly the wrong way.
This. IS NOT. A comic. Cross might have been able to go that route if she’d tried, but this is a book, not a novel, so please, stop wasting time telling me what the fucking heroine is wearing and try giving her a little GODDAMN DEPTH.
But developed characters are deftly avoided. It’s all about the archetypes and cool distinguishing character traits (like accents, Stetsons, and piercings).
Griffin King is the generically handsome Good Guy and Team Leader, Finley’s love interest who is supposed to have a whole bundle of parental issues and unexpressed RAEGE, but we spend less time being told about that than we do what color cravat he’s wearing today.
The remaining members of Griffin’s team – Sam, Jasper, and Cordelia – are just as one-dimensional as the rest. Sam receives the dubious honor of being Most Irritating Character; I still don’t quite understand his purpose in the story aside from PADDING, but he spends almost the entire book bitching about how nobody understands him because he’s half-steampunk robot now, and that makes him sadface because he’s ALIVE but not normal anymore, the horror.
He gets a whole subplot, though, which, while being the only properly resolved one, is still by far the most tedious. You just don’t buy it. He’s angry with his friends for saving him and repairing him with STEAM, even though he would have died without it, and this makes him splinter off from the group in a great emo huff. He ends up being befriended by the villain, which you know from day one because that character could serve no other purpose.
The idea might have been workable if Cross had done better at developing Sam as a character, but all we get are pages of him explaining how he hates his metal innards whilst being a stupid, easily-manipulated douche bag to everyone, so any sympathy you might have mustered for him is completely wasted.
Jasper is the token American, a walking old-west cliche whose powers allow him to move super-fast. For reasons I don’t understand, Cross thought it necessary for the book to include two love triangles when she couldn’t properly sustain one, so Emily, Jasper, and Sam have that going on as well, even though Emily and Sam are as clearly intended for one another as Finley and Griffin.
That brings us to the only mildly interesting character, Jack Dandy, the third point in Finley’s obligatory love triangle. He had enormous potential, being a young, dapper, handsome criminal overlord with a wonderfully expressive habit of losing his Cockney accent in accordance with his mood. When he was initially introduced, his character was the only one with a real sense of unpredictability. Unfortunately he was subject to almost instant badass decay, losing any element of danger the moment he became taken with Finley, which happened to be the moment he met her.
The triangle between him, Finley, and Griffin is predictable nonsense – Finley’s dark side is drawn to Jack, her good side to Griffin, but everyone knows from the start who the Author-Designated Choice is, even Jack. His only real purpose in the story is to make Griffin jealous and nudge the two together, a role he plays almost willingly, as counter-intuitive as that is.
PROTIP: the purpose of a love triangle is to create conflict and tension, but that DOESN’T WORK if we can tell from the moment the characters are introduced who will end up with who. If you can’t do it right, please, PLEASE, just don’t do it at all.
At any rate, these characters – Jasper, Cordelia, Jack, even Sam – feel extraneous. They served no real purpose in the grand scheme of things, so I didn’t – still don’t – know why they were there. I imagine they might play a larger role as the series continues, but more than that, I imagine that Cross just wanted a story with these types of characters in it, regardless of how useless they were.
This book was just so…broken. It might have made for an interesting comic, or at the very least a pretty one, but as a book it’s superficial and indulgent and childish. Its numerous plot holes, inconsistencies, and undeveloped characters make it a first draft at best, and I’m honestly astounded, even just from a technical standpoint (ropey, ropey, ropey), that The Girl in the Steel Corset was published as-is.