Author: K.Z. Snow
Genre: M/M steampunk romance
Length: 202 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Jenre
Counteract the Christmas sweetness with this well written, dark and grizzly tale set in an imaginative steampunk setting.
Hunzinger’s Mechanical Circus, a rollicking seaside carnival where imagination meets machinery, shines as the only bright spot in the dreary city of Purinton. A shadow is cast there one day when a tall, cloaked figure approaches the stand of Will Marchman, a young patent-medicine salesman. Fanule Perfidor, commonly known as the Dog King, isn’t welcome at the Circus. No resident of Taintwell is; they’re all Branded Mongrels, officially shunned. But Will is beguiled by the stunning, mysterious Perfidor. Their mutual wariness soon gives way to desire, and a bond forms.
Soon the naive but plucky pitchman becomes embroiled in a dangerous quest. Fanule suspects Alphonse Hunzinger and Purinton’s civic leaders are responsible for the disappearance or incarceration of countless Branded Mongrels. But why? As Will’s passion and regard for his tormented lover grow, he’s determined to help Fanule get answers and prevent any further persecution… or worse. They just have to stay together—and stay alive long enough—to see their plan through.
As a big fan of K.Z. Snow’s writing I was looking forward to this new release. I like fantasy and steampunk so I was interested to see whether this story would work for me. It did, but be warned the grizzly contents may not be to everyone’s taste.
The story itself revolves around a steam operated mechanical circus and the plans the odious owner has for a new exhibit. This is linked to the disappearance of many Mongrels (who are part human, part something else and therefore outcasts) who have either gone missing or have been arrested on trumped up charges. Fan is the nominated leader of the Mongrels and is determined to discover the truth, no matter how much danger he gets into. When he meets Will, who sells a restorative elixir at the circus, there is an attraction between them and it isn’t long before Will finds himself helping Fan.
As with all fantasy stories it’s important to get the balance right in the setting and world building. In the case of Mongrel, the setting is very detailed in its description. Perhaps too detailed, as I found my attention drifting a little with some of the descriptive passages. This is probably because I was impatient to get on with a story which had thoroughly gripped me and so the parts containing lots of description were frustrating in that they slowed the pace slightly. Having said that, the detail in the description meant that I was thoroughly immersed in the world that the author had created, in all its dim, murky and dirty glory. The vividness of the steampunk setting perfectly complemented the story which deals with oppression, racism, and conspiracies.
In amongst this dark tale is that of the relationship between Fan and Will which shines out from all the murky goings on. It’s a surprisingly sweet tale of two very different men – in looks and personality – and how they fall in love despite all that may be against them. I found Will to be a wonderful character in that he’s 100% human, young and idealistic; a hard worker and optimistic, despite his loneliness. In contrast Fan is a Mongrel, older and suffers from Bipolar depression, as well as a terrible past. The lightness in Will counteracts the darkness in Fan and I found this thoroughly delightful. I also liked how the heroes are taken aback at how quickly and forcefully their attraction for each other grows.
Another aspect I thought worked well was in the portrayal of Fan’s illness. He’s endlessly frustrated with the sudden changes in mood as he swings from a kind of mania to the depths of crippling depression. We see him in both moods during the story and both times the descriptions were sympathetic and considerate. I liked how, as the book progressed and Fan gained more friends, he was better able to control his moods through medication and their kind attentions. It’s not often that mental illness is covered in an m/m book, and in the case of Mongrel I felt that it was handled with realism and dignity.
Alongside the characters of Will and Fan there are quite a number of secondary characters. I especially liked the characters of Simon and Marrowbone, both of whom kept to the shadowy line between good and bad guy. It was nice to see such nuanced characteristics in secondary characters. There are others too which flit in and out of the book to either aide or hinder our heroes in their quest, and all of them were well drawn.
I said earlier that this was a tale of dark deeds, and those who don’t have a strong stomach many find themselves turning a little green over some aspects of the story. This didn’t bother me, because I do have a strong stomach and a love of the macabre, but if you aren’t like me then count yourself warned!
Overall this was a complex story with a richly realised setting. If you like steampunk, or even fantasy then this book should appeal to you. Once again K.Z. Snow has shown us what a wonderful versatile author she is and I can’t wait to read her next book!