Their mouths were not human….
It was years ago in Egypt and in the middle of an excavation that archaeologist Eleanor Folley’s mother disappeared right before her eyes after a vicious attack that nearly cost Eleanor’s life. After spending almost a decade unsuccessfully seeking for clues about her mother (and at great expense to her personal life), Eleanor is finally back home leaving the past where it belongs, working with her father as a librarian. All thoughts of adventure and romance are left behind. All hope to ever find her mother are gone. Nothing remains but her scars, her memories (Their mouths were not human...) and a secret, ancient ring which she always keeps close.
Then one day Mistral Agent Virgil Mallory walks into her life with news of a crime that might be connected to Eleanor’s former lover. He asks for her help. He invites her to come along with him to her beloved Egypt. And he offers possible answers about her mother. How could she say no?
Before I proceed further, allow me to add one caveat: It’s impossible for me to read a book featuring archaeologists excavating in Egypt in the 19th century and not be immediately wary that issues pertaining to imperialism and raiding treasures will not be addressed. It’s with relief that I report that the book doesn’t cross the line into problematic territory: Eleanor herself is not only half-Egyptian but also a respectful archaeologist who seeks antiquities for study and conservation. The book also presents a narrative that never condones other types of behavior when it comes to raiding and searching for treasure. It was enough to make me relax and enjoy the ride, but your mileage may vary, of course.
With that out of the way:
The Rings of Anubis*, comprising of Gold & Glass and Silver & Steam, is a self-contained duology set in an alternate 19th century, featuring a great female protagonist, a wolfy hero, adventure, archaeology, fantasy, mystery and romance. It is deliciously fun.
If the worldbuilding is slightly less detailed than I would have liked (the Steampunk elements are perhaps more on the aesthetic side, for example), the book excels in the writing and development of its characters and their motivations.
Eleanor is a fabulous protagonist. It’s interesting that her complexity stems from being both a woman of her own time and someone who feels utterly disconnected from its mores. On the one hand, she is a calm and composed cigarette smoker, whiskey drinker, trouser wearer, and a gun-shooting adventurer. On the other hand, she understands these things might set her apart from a traditional idea of femininity and become a problem when in Society. In her adventures with Mallory, though, she comes across other women doing the same things she likes to do, thereby realizing she isn’t necessarily unique or alone. This duology is very much rich in portrayals of different types of ladies: from spies and archaeologists to librarians and mothers. Speaking of mothers, a central focus is given to Eleanor’s relationship with her mother and later to that between her mother and grandmother. The mirrored motivations of these three ladies is really interesting—and painful—to read.
The past has a strong hold on these characters: for Eleanor, it’s the mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance that keeps her from moving on. For Mallory, it’s the secret he keeps under his own skin. He’s an opium-addicted werewolf who can’t accept his two divergent sides and who carries a lot of grief and fear. The relationship between the two is sweet and one of mutual respect (I loved how Mallory was constantly worried about crossing lines and always asked Eleanor’s consent). And even though Mallory has an equal share of the viewpoint narrative, it’s still very much Eleanor’s motivations that carry the story through. It’s a shame that there weren’t enough sexytimes, although there was plenty of sexual tension (is there such a thing as literary blue balls? If yes, then I have it).
My only real misgiving comes from the treatment given to Mallory’s late wife, Caroline, as the narrative surrounding her life (and death) made me slightly uncomfortable. The book has enough diverse and well-written female characters that her being a one-note villain is not exactly a problem. But fingers are pointed at her for keeping secrets (when everybody in the book keeps secrets) and without spoiling it too much, the scene with her “final judgement” left a bad taste in the mouth considering how nonjudgemental the rest of the book is.
The above is the one off-key note in an otherwise highly recommended, fun and romantic adventure novel.
In Book Smugglerish: an enthusiastic 7 out of 10.
*Available right now only as ebooks but the publisher (Masque Books) has plans to publish an omnibus edition in the summer.