Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley
We first meet Cara Devon as she fends off a couple of tough guys sent to her father’s home in London searching for a valuable artifact. We quickly see that Cara is not to be trifled with, as she shoots one and wounds the other. Their boss also quickly comes to understand that Cara is not typical of the society debutantes who populate his world. She is not only beautiful but also very dangerous and certainly unconventional.
Cara’s story is ugly, the true extent of the ugliness only hinted at in the early chapters of this captivating novel. Her father, we learn, cared more for the unusual and valuable artifacts he collected than for his only daughter, resulting in a terrifying, traumatic event that scarred her at thirteen. Now, however, he is dead and she is his only heir, now owning all of those artifacts he so treasured. She has an inkling that the artifacts, which her father separated and hid in multiple locations, are much more than they appear, and she quickly discovers that there is one that someone will kill for. Cara finds an unlikely ally in Viscount Nathaniel Lyons, the man who sent the villains Cara so easily handled in the first chapter. The two embark on an adventure that takes them beneath the Thames, to fancy dress balls, to backroom sex clubs, all throughout a London painted with a broad steampunk brush as they search for the one artifact that can grant everlasting life to the right pair of lovers. Dogging their every move is the mysterious, deadly maniac responsible for a series of gruesome murders of young society ladies, all found with a key twisted into their hearts, whose path comes closer and closer to crossing Cara’s, leading them all to a grisly climax.
Exley has done a masterful job creating memorable characters in Cara and Nathaniel. They complement each other beautifully, with just the right blend of romance and sex. The story here is fast-paced with a well-constructed plot, leading to an unexpected and satisfying conclusion. Exley develops Cara’s character with sensitivity but also a bit of irreverence. Her story is revealed bit by bit, and the effect it has on the relationship between Cara and Lyons is nicely handled. I was reminded very much of the Theodosia series of children’s books by R.L. LaFevers – Cara could be Theodosia all grown up, except Theo’s father was not a scoundrel. Being fairly new to the steampunk genre, I have found that the stories are either really, really good, or really, really bad; Nefertiti’s Heart falls into the former category. Highly recommended.