The Jacq of Spades offers a rich, complex culture with a mix of post-apocalyptic and noir themes. From the beginning, the reader is thrust into the layers of existence Jacqui maintains between her public position as wife to the heir of the Spadros family, one of the leading families on their island, and her private work as a detective.
The story is told in first person and builds from two ends at the same time. Jacqui’s memories add in pieces of information to show the tangled line she walks as her past comes to confront her present when she’s called upon to investigate the kidnapping of her best friend’s younger brother. Not her modern, good-side-of-town best friend, but the street rat companion of her youth in the Pot, what passes for a slum in the domed city of Bridges.
I found the characters intriguing and the environments full of lovely details. That Jacqui lives on the edge, unsure of whom she can trust and knowing the very actions she undertakes to win possible security could condemn her is very clear. While not heavily steampunk in nature, the influence of the Victorian aesthetic is noticeable, and that each family has an inventor, somewhat of a mad scientist, is revealed right up front. However, that aspect of the world is not the main focus in this, the beginning of a larger tale.
I’ve mentioned before how I tend not to read mysteries. This book reminds me of why. While it’s stated up front that this is part one, between the main character’s ignorance and the first person narrative, the layering of clues and evidence sometimes felt more given than discovered to me. She definitely breaks the rules of her society and goes into situations a woman of her now stature has no business being in, which offers up some solid tension in the story. Ultimately, though, I didn’t feel much was resolved, and the one bit of answer Jacqui does manage comes without the detail to make it feel real.
I have a theory about the Red Dog Conspiracy and the mystery behind all this, but lack the evidence to prove or disprove it. My guess is the mystery will continue in the next book, and yes, the specific case technically does conclude, so others might have no issue, but as a reader I was left dissatisfied by this aspect.
I’m not much for pomp over substance as a reader, and clearly, the state of the mystery left me frustrated, but I enjoyed my time in Bridges and with Jacqui. There are several story threads that draw me on to the next book in the series because of the curiosity they’ve provoked, and the question of where Jacqui can find true allies is a major part of that.
For rich pageantry and a complex culture navigated by a character who feels she’s balanced on the edge between the slums of the Pot and the extravagance of the families, The Jacq of Spades is a hands-down success. I felt folded into their culture from the start, and it definitely pushes the noir buttons well.
The bridge (if you’ll allow me a moment of humor) to the next book promises a deeper look into the steampunk elements and warps this world from stagnant stability in a time of crisis to a desperate need for change. There’s a lot that intrigues in the first novel, and I suspect the next will have that and more.
I am both picky and demanding where mystery comes into play. That the mystery/detective elements did not live up to my standards, therefore, may not reflect the experience of other readers. The world building and characters, however, delighted me and while I might not have picked up the book knowing what I know now, I would have missed out on a fascinating culture that touches on the status of women and social differences through the eyes of someone both within and standing as an outsider to this world.
While Jacqui’s aims might not be what the Spadros family had hoped, she’s the perfect foil for the brutal man who runs the family. She has much to learn about the nature of her relationship with her husband through the course of the book as well, things that will both surprise her and cause Jacqui to rethink some of her assumptions. There is much good to counterbalance my issues, and while I would have expected a solid conclusion to the first part of the mystery, it is the beginning of a series and therefore the answer I seek is still to come. I do not regret opening the pages of this book one bit.
P.S. I was given this book by the author in return for an honest review.