Tainted is a Steampunk novel set in a Victorian-style fantasy world that doesn’t feel all too different from most London settings. Kat is mostly alone—with a dead mother and a mad scientist father who spends all his time away from her, on his projects, and she’s left raised by paid staff, a woman who ends up a relation to the other main character, who is a detective become bounty hunter after his life goes wrong.
Morgan Busse does about as excellent a job as possible as setting up sympathetic characters. Both are put into situations where they’re hurting immensely through betrayal within the first few chapters, a trick that the master of sci-fi, Lois McMaster Bujold oft uses in her books, a formula to put characters through the worst possible situations from their perspective and see what happens when they come out the other side. When writers do that, it makes it very easy to latch on and go through the rest of books, and Busse succeeded in this.
The story is billed as a Frankenstein redone steampunk, and there are some of those elements there, but this reads much more like a romance-fantasy than a horror novel, so I think it’s better to go in with those expectations. Kat goes to what basically amounts to a mad science school, and has these strange powers she can’t explain that she tries not to use because it makes her feel as if she’s losing a part of her soul. Stephen spends early chapters moping, but he eventually decides to help Kat in her quest to figure out what’s going on with her.
It eventually comes to a climax that is hard to put down in the last hundred pages as the pace picks up and the stakes keep getting raised. There’s romance, betrayal, and a cool mad science laboratory with Frankenstein-style experiments that I wish I’d seen a lot more of earlier in the book, as this is where the world becomes compelling. Naturally there’s an airship captain because it’s steampunk, and the set up there does play a useful part to the story. Busse does an excellent job with the Chekov’s gun and making sure everything ties in, and is foreshadowed ahead of time.
A couple of criticisms of the book are that it uses the standard “no women are allowed into _____” trope where it didn’t really seem to have much use to the story. It’d be nice to not see that in every book out there, but it’s what we have in the market currently. After the first couple chapters, this part of the storyline goes away almost completely so it doesn’t negatively impact the book too much.
Second, this is done by a Christian publisher and it falls into the small trap where the characters stop and pray every few chapters as if to remind a reader it’s a Christian book. World city, however, is set in a fantasy world, and the religion and who/what they’re praying to isn’t well defined, and doesn’t seem to impact the story. Again this is minor, as it happens periodically but doesn’t overwhelm the story, but might be something to look out for.
Minor elements that didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story too much.
Overall this is a fine first steampunk outing. Fun characters, a well-paced story that’s on the run and doesn’t stop. The writing style is light and easy to read, good for a fantasy/steampunk set up. The heroes are heroes reluctantly, and the villains are certainly villains. The last third of the book is where it really shines after the set up. Tainted does not completely resolve, but is set up for a book 2 so be aware of that as well. It was a pretty natural stopping point for the story, however, and I did enjoy enough that I will read the second in the series.