This series has come up in conversation a time or two in the steampunk groups I follow online, and its fans are dedicated. Having read the first book, I understand why. Nyssa Glass is a genuinely nice person with a quick mind and a generous heart. She has strong skills both mechanical from her training and in burglary thanks to falling upon hard times as a kid.
This story is true to my favorite aspects of Victorian and steampunk fiction, economic inequality and mechanical technology, respectively. Nyssa embodies both the poor and a growing middle class with her former life as a thief, or more accurately a burglar, and her new one working in the equipment and repair shop of her benefactor. He is responsible for plucking her from the den of thieves and sponsoring her engineering training. Her past leaves her vulnerable, despite a full pardon, to those who would exploit both of her skills. This is where the story begins with her history shared in fragments relevant to the moment until we come to understand the whole, and it’s not exactly what you might think.
Part of how I came to know Nyssa is in her relationships with others. Her mentor, Mr. Calloway, is a good example. He could have been a taskmaster, she could have resented him, or they might have shared his small repair shop with no common feeling. Instead, he’s more like family. They understand each other’s quirks that stems from a long time working together and enjoying the company. For example, Nyssa tries to restrain Mr. C’s distraction by giving everything a specific place, but her affectionate frustration when she fails says more than anything else how connected they are.
The world building reveals an alternative history that mixes steampunk into the traditions of the Victorian Era. As part of her pardon and reform, Nyssa was sent to Miss Pratchett’s School for Mechanically Minded Maids. Just in the name, we understand finishing schools to be a thing, that women are trained for mechanical jobs, and there is a path for former thieves to re-enter society. This is only one example of the way things that come up naturally, and the phrasing used, work to build the world she lives in.
I quickly became engaged with the overall story in addition to the main character. It is full of intriguing questions, and Nyssa’s lack of a clear view only makes it more so. That she’s being manipulated is never a question for Nyssa or the reader, but the puzzle to be unraveled is overwhelming in its attraction. The story reminds me of a heist film, combining superior skill with complex technology to achieve the unachievable. Except there is more at stake than monetary gain. There are many surprises to come once she’s forced to accept the second offer to recover lost items in an abandoned mansion if she’s to avoid the straight blackmail of the first. Nyssa escaped her criminal life once and has little choice beyond employer if she’s going to avoid a return.
The story could easily have become a tinker’s adventure as she used her thieving skills in combination with her repair training and tools to carry out a dangerous heist. That is definitely an aspect, but hardly the whole. We learn a lot about Nyssa through her interactions along the way, how she approaches challenges, and her reaction to what she uncovers. She’s smart and talented, but this does not make her prideful. While not arrogant, she knows her way around technology and is willing to figure out what she doesn’t know.
One of the deeper notes in the story surrounds the moral concerns when inventing while another looks at how the physically handicapped are treated. There are some dark (even horrific) moments I didn’t expect when beginning the read any more than the sweet ones. But, the plot seeds are there for all important elements making them feel solid whether you caught on early or at the reveal.
Ultimately, this is an entertaining story despite what lies hidden beneath the fun technology and puzzles. The main cast is small, and some of those are almost incidental, but the key players are well drawn and engaging. The final attraction for me is how the story looks deeper than the surface to engage some important questions. For those concerned about cliffhangers, the book ends on a solid note with this tale completed even as the series continues, making me wonder what else Nyssa will get up to.