*This review will unavoidably spoil Mechanica if you have not read it and want to.
Venturess picks up a year after Mechanica left off: Nicolette has found a family in her best friends, Caro and Prince Fin of Esting. Even though Fin has always loved Caro, and Nicolette loves Fin, we don’t get a love triangle. Instead, they have a poly-amorous non-sexual (at least there isn’t even a hint on page) relationship. Nicolette has a patron and her own shop, and she’s busy with orders (especially those mechanical glass slippers she wore to the ball last year). The annual Royal Exposition of Art and Science is here again, and Fin speaks in front of a crowd. Then, a bullet rips through his shoulder. His mother and older brother have already been murdered by Faerie assassins, so is this another attempt on the royal family?
Nicolette receives a letter from her old housekeeper, Mr. Candery, who lives in Faerie, asking her to bring Prince Fin to negotiate a treaty between Esting and Faerie. Everyone is under the impression Fin and Nicolette are engaged because they’ve both used the rumor to placate the kingdom, a kingdom that needs fairy tale endings in the midst of impending war. Mr. Candery assumes Nicolette can convince her fiance to come to him. Fin, Caro, and Nicolette decide they must travel across the ocean to Faerie to discuss a peace treaty.
Years ago, Esting invaded and colonized Faerie. Some Esting soldiers remain stationed in Faerie, and there is an embargo on Faerie people and goods in Esting. One member of the court has no intentions of seeing Prince Fin negotiate and begins to build a mechanical army to attack when the time is right.
The emotional depth of Venturess was better than in Mechanica. There were times I wanted to feel more while reading that first book, and in its sequel readers get dialectical emotions: anger and love, relief and remorse. Characters who are supposed to be good have major flaws that Nicolette has to get work through, characters are killed or maimed, bad things happen. There are several surprises; things I thought resolved in Mechanica come back powerfully, giving Nicolette interesting situations to process. Cornwell writes with actual colonization in mind, never romanticizing it to soften things for readers. For these reasons, Venturess felt like a much more adult novel, not young adult.
Perhaps because she is a year older now (maybe 18??), Nicolette’s narration has matured. She sets emotional boundaries, protects her friends, and withstands grief in the face of death and ethical issues. As she thinks about what’s happening, she processes her emotions and how she wants to react to them. She admits she knows she should feel grateful when compared to the loss of others — but does not, and thinks through why. I’m not providing concrete examples to avoid spoilers.
I felt that the plot moved along at the right pace, too, slowing in more tender moments, such as Fin, Caro, and Nicolette laying on the deck of the airship taking them to Faerie and looking at the stars. Later, when Esting inevitably attacks on Faerie land, the action is well-described but doesn’t drag. I got the full experience of loss faced in battle when characters are described — without going through each gory stabbing. And even though I don’t see it often, I appreciated that information readers learn through narration is shared verbally between characters, so we know the info was actually shared. Typically, a writer will skip anything that sounds like repeated info, which I find unrealistic.
Venturess is an emotionally-driven novel about love in the broadest sense of the word, gender-fluid characters, colonization, and different types of slavery. It gets dark in places, but history is indeed dark. Several gear-ladened, coal-powered animals, people, and contraptions appear throughout, so the wonder of steam-punk inventions remains a prominent element.