“Nefertiti’s Heart” by A.W. Exley

Nefertiti’s Heart | Artifact Hunters #1 | ASIN B0139OZJYK  | A.W. Exley, 2015 | 2 out of 5 Points

“1861. Cara has a simple mission in London – finalise her father’s estate and sell off his damned collection of priceless artifacts. Her plan goes awry when a killer stalks the nobility, searching for an ancient Egyptian relic rumoured to hold the key to immortality.

Nathaniel Trent, known as the villainous viscount, is relentless in his desire to lay his hands on both Cara and the priceless artifacts. His icy exterior and fiery touch stirs Cara’s demons, or could he lay them to rest? Self-preservation fuels Cara’s search for the gem known as Nefertiti’s Heart. In a society where everyone wears a mask to hide their true intent, she needs to figure out who to trust, before she sacrifices her own heart and life.”

LUDOVICA’S REVIEW

This book is a hard one to review. It has some very nice parts to it, and I honestly have to say that I enjoyed reading it, once I started ignoring about half of what was going on in it. I am not a very critical reader, but for the sake of this blog, I have to be a critical reviewer, and for this reason, I wasn’t really able to give this book more than 2 stars.

Let’s start with the most critical element of any piece of historical fiction: the historical part.

IS IT A BIRD? IS IT A PLANE? NO – IT’S HISTORICAL INACCURACIES

Now, this book is Steampunk, so a few criteria of historical accuracy do not apply. The Steampunk world was, all in all, convincing, if not exactly very well fleshed out, with some plot-relevant exceptions here and there. However, a lot of what this book is about and especially a lot of the characters’ background is firmly rooted in Victorian London, so there is a lot of stuff that just has to be accurate for this book to actually feel satisfying as a historical romance. I mean, I don’t expect an American to know that British bacon is not ‘crispy’ (except if you do it like me and buy Pancetta, which would not have been an option in 18something), or that people in Victorian London did not drink as much coffee as the people in this book do habitually, but I expect an American author of historical fiction set in Victorian England to know something about social mores and manners, as well as clothing (not even fashion, just the way people put on their goddamn clothes). Let me just tell you: A corset is an undergarment. It is not a part of the things you see on a person. And if this Victorian England is anything like the real Victorian England, which it desperately tries to be, then Cara, our dear protagonist, would have been jailed whenever she left the house wearing one of her green embroidered 19th century bras OVER her actual clothes. We get it, you’re independent, you’ve got super short hair, you wear trousers, but you’re not Superman, so stop wearing your underwear over your dress.

Let’s talk about the treatment Cara gets by society for a second. First of all, Cara’s backstory revolves about her being brutally beaten by her father and then sold to and raped by a respected member of society. This is why she is apparently a pariah now, even though this scandal seems to have touched neither her father nor her rapist. Let’s be clear about one thing: Rape was not condoned in Victorian society. Rape victims were not avoided like the plague. Rapists did not just get away with it because they were rich or powerful or what do I know what. If you were connected with a scandal that seems to have been as public as Cara’s was (as illustrated by the fact that pretty much everybody who is anybody knows about it), you would not just have returned to your normal life. There would have been a process. Being rich was not a get-out-of-jail-free pass in Victorian England, no matter how much people seem to believe that.

Just how warped and unrealistic society’s treatment of Cara is in this book becomes clear when the fiancé of a childhood friend of Cara’s – get this – turns his goddamn chair around in a public restaurant so he has his back to Cara, after greeting her by looking at her suspiciously and then turning to his fiancée and asking her if she thinks that Cara is a proper kind of acquaintance for her. In public. At a place where people can hear it. In front of Cara. No self-respecting gentleman in Victorian England would have been caught dead doing something so absolutely childish. In Victorian England, if people were gossiping about you, you would be the very last person to know about it. The only hint you would get that you were ostracized from society would be that you’re not receiving as many party invitations than you used to, or that less people come calling than before. And even that is relative – some people would have invited you precisely because of the scandal surrounding you, so their party would be a bit more interesting. But you’d still never hear any bad opinion about yourself, because people would not have gossiped that openly in public. At a later point, Cara gets accosted by a grieving mother in a hat shop, and in such a way that if there had been a bobby nearby, that lady would definitely have been fined. It’s more understandable than the whole turning-my-back-on-you deal, but it’s still very, very unlikely to happen in the society that inspired this book.

I could go on about all the historical inaccuracies in this book for at least three more paragraphs, but let’s not do that. Let’s instead move on to something positive, so this doesn’t look like a total hatchet job.

THAT’S NOT HOW PTSD WORKS

I actually liked Cara. Even despite her strange fashion habits, her proclivity to need rescuing even though she’s got two guns and what do I know how many knives on her person at all times, and the fact that she sometimes spontaneously turns into an info-dumping tear thrower (more about that later), she is a compelling character and it’s fun to read her point of view. I also liked her romance with Nathaniel, even though Nathaniel himself was faaar more of a romance character than a thriller character, and as such sometimes a little incongruous with the thriller plot.

The thriller/murder mystery plot was really good, by the way. I’d say that was actually what kept me reading despite the pretty egregious historical inaccuracy and the honestly annoying writing style (more about that later as well). I did know who the killer was quite early, but that might be because I’ve read more mystery novels and watched more police procedurals than anybody has any right to do, but the hunt was still entertaining and the glimpses into the killer’s psychology interesting to read, though the reason that’s later given for his insanity is kind of lackluster. I also liked Inspector Fraser, who has the second PoV in this book, and who is exclusively part of the thriller plot, even though he also sometimes behaves in ways that are not 100% comprehensible.

Now that the positive aspects of the book are out of the way, let’s talk about Nathaniel and Cara’s relationship. First of all: This might be the most unrealistic meet-cute (with cute in huuuge air quotes) that I’ve ever seen. I know I’ve not read as many romance novels as other people, but I’ve had my fair share, and still, this is so unrealistic and strange and I honestly nearly stopped reading because of it.

Basically what happens is this: The book starts with Cara in her father’s library, looking for a notebook, when suddenly, just as she finds it, two men break into the library. They are armed and they want the notebook and they seem to be ready to kill her to get what they want. She shoots both of them non-lethally after she finds out that they work for Nathaniel Trent, the ‘Villainous Viscount’. And then, a few days later, she gets an invitation to have dinner with the very same villainous viscount. And she accepts the invitation. She goes to his house. She puts on a dress he put out for her. She tells him the story of her rape in every detail imaginable over dinner, and then she agrees to barter her own body in exchange for Nathaniel’s service as a fence for her father’s stolen artifacts.

Just take that in for a moment.

This girl got brutally raped, apparently didn’t really talk about it to anybody but her grandmother in 7 years, then tells a man all about it who sent two thugs into her home who were ready to kill her, and THEN she decides hey, sure, I’m going to let this stranger who wanted to see me dead for the sake of a notebook touch me, because obviously there are no other fences in London???

Like I said, I nearly stopped reading right there.

The whole rape backstory is just so… I don’t know, it basically reads like the result of a brainstorming session about ‘What is the worst that could have happened to my heroine that could have made a pariah out of her?’ I don’t feel it was taken seriously. Nathaniel basically uses his magical cock to heal Cara from her past trauma, and that is just not how it works?? Well, at least it can be said that he doesn’t have ‘proper’ sex with her until she’s well and ready for it, but he still forces Cara to accept intrusive touches that would be very, very traumatic for a survivor of the kind of brutality Cara lived through.

DEAR GOD, NOT ANOTHER GERUND, NO, NOOO

And this seems kind of anti-climactic, but just the last thing I want to mention about this book is the godawful writing style. The author just spoon-feeds her audience everything, and mostly in gerund phrases, which I hate like the devil anyway. Let’s take a look at some examples:

“I have some business to conduct tonight at Savage’s. I can escort you there, if you wish to accompany me?” He offered Savage’s, instead, a legitimate playground for the wealthy in fashionable St James, containing a ballroom and several gaming rooms.

Love, we already know that he’s offering Savage’s. You do not need to repeat what your characters say. We can read. Really.

He handed the small bundle over. “I enjoy doing business with you, cara mia.” He turned her name into an Italian caress as his eyes lingered on her heaving breasts, highlighted and displayed by the cut of her corset.

First off, highlighted and displayed literally mean the same thing in this context. Second off, it’s the same thing again – we understand the word play with her name, haha, very cute. We do not need it to be made this explicit.

Cara took a long drink. Letting the liquid settle in her stomach, she contemplated the stirred memories.

… Okay. How in the world is liquid supposed to ‘settle’ in anybody’s stomach? The image I’ve got in my head right now is that of a liquid like alien making a nest in her stomach, and to be honest, that would have made the book quite a bit better, but alas, I guess the author just needed more gerunds.

She waited until the doors closed, before asking her question. Something nagged at her, since gazing down at Beth Armstrong’s serene face.

Because you can’t have less than one gerund clause in any one sentence, right? So here we have two following each other. What in the world is wrong with the past perfect? Did it go out of commission? Did the author run out of ‘hads’?

Heading outside, relief washed over her when Nathaniel entered the carriage and decided to take the seat opposite her, leaving Loki to sit next to her.

Yay, now it’s two in one sentence! Listen, gerund clauses have a reason to exist, and this reason is to show that two things are happening at the same time. But how? There are four things happening in this sentence: Cara heads outside (or they all head outside), Nathaniel enters the carriage, Nathaniel decides to take the seat opposite her, which forces Loki to sit next to her. There is no way in grammar hell that all of those things are happening at the same time. There just isn’t. You are using your gerunds wrong. Shame on you. Now they’re sad and confused.

The thing with this book for me was that I am pretty good at enjoying flawed things. I am able to see them and register them, but still have fun reading a book as long as there is one redeeming factor in it. Like I said, I liked Cara despite her badly-handled backstory, and I liked the mystery, and I don’t give a book that I actually enjoyed reading only one star. I just don’t do that. So the end-verdict for this book is two stars, and I’d recommend it to anybody who just wants to have a steamy little romance novel with a nice thriller plot, as long as you’re able to ignore a less-than-perfect style and an interpretation of Victorian England that basically reads as if the author’s only research were other subpar historical romance books.

About Ludovica

Ludovica is a translator, writer and aspiring librarian, which is why she already practices getting as many books into her overflowing shelves as possible. She lives in the heart of the Alps, but dreams of a life in Canada.

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