For the most part I really enjoyed this book, but there was one really massive thing that put me off and I'm not sure yet whether it's a dealbreaker or not. *Spoilers*
Since humans began developing clairvoyance some time around the turn of the 19th century, the government has sought to eradicate the 'Voyants', blaming them for all society's ills, campaigning for their destruction, enforcing the death penalty for those captured. 19year old Paige, a powerful type of Voyant called a Dream Walker (the top of the power tree) has made a living in the criminal underground, acting as a sort of out-of-body spy and information gatherer fro Jaxon Hall, her Mime Lord and futuristic Fagin. Clairvoyance works by various types of Voyant being able to access the "Ether" and thus see, sense or feel a person's Dreamscape, an area of a person's mind somewhere between an aura and a soul. A thriving underworld of Voyant syndicates exists under the dictatorial facade of future London. Her syndicate, based in Seven Dials, is the only place Paige has ever felt at home. Surrounded by other voyants of various types (Jax has quite the staff roll) she is an essential part of a highly successful team.
I thought the world building was really, really well done. The steampunk-esque Dickensian London of the Citadel of Scion London combined with 250 years' worth of technological advancement (it's 2059) was a fascinating backdrop for a familiar but well told story. Scion, the big-brother-esque government organisation that seized the city of London is a murky, tyrannical organisation whose rise we do not see. We learn that they have other cities under their control but are not witnesses to their rise to power. I'd love to have seen Scion's rise to power, what happened to make it possible in the first city that they occupied.
On a trip across town to see her father, Paige is spotted by a night patrol of Voyants in the employ of the government- she kills them accidentally and is forced to flee. Pursued across the rooftops of London by an unfamiliar red-jacketed squadron, she is caught. drugged and kidnapped. When she is revived, full of pain and poison Paige finds herself in the city of Sheol 1, a prison city run by a muscular humanoid race known as the Rephaim. Every 20 years, the Rephaim send Bone-Grabbers into Scion London and round up 20 clairvoyants to bring to their city. Voyants are assigned a Rephaim master and those that show a capacity for fighting are used to defend the city against the Emim, a mysterious kind of flesh eating space monster. It is apparently the threat posed by the Emim to the reast of Earth that give the Rephaim their power over Scion, an organisation that was founded when the Rephaim arrived on Earth as a source of human fodder for their defences. Those that fail to show combat skills or are deemed clairvoyantly useless are consigned to a life of poverty in the city slums as entertainers. The non voyants captured by mistake become slaves in service.
The book's core plot is the feisty, displaced Paige finding herself assigned to the Warden, the betrothed of the Rephaim's bloodthirsty leader. Training by night, wandering the city by daym she learns the hierarchy of the Rephaim's structure, immerses herself in the slums and the underbelly of the city, learns of failed rebellions and oppression. The people that she arrived with, other voyants and humans, are mistreated, abused and beaten by their masters. The voyants that failed to become bone grabbers live in humiliation and squalour. She means to get out of there as soon as she can- but how can she leave so many behind?
So. The potential dealbreaker for me (spoilers, FYI) is the idea of a slave of any kind, a branded, renamed, displaced, friends are occasionally murdered in front of her slave like Paige falling for her owner. He might be a nicer, more empathetic, liberal owner, but he is her owner nonetheless. I get that Warden is ideologically separate from the Rephaim. I get that he's a closeted rebel working to incite a human rebellion. I realise that it's not *quite* as bad as it could have been...But this book would have been 100% better for me if their romance had not happened. It would not have damaged the plot, not made the ending anti-climactic. I'm not saying Humans can't go in for alien species- just look at The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, that pulled off the whole human/alien pairing OK- it's the slave 'falling for' the handsome, 'he's not like the rest of them' owner that bothers me. It's so unnecessary and so inappropriate. How can a piece of property be involved in any sort of consensual encounter with their owner? I don't think it would have detracted from the plot at all. We see Paige and the Warden build a shaky trust, each saves the life of the other repeatedly and they do genuinely seem to develop a partnership based on the same objectives. But romance? I can't get on with that. Yes, the Warden is kind of trapped by his situation as a rebel and fiancee of the ruling species. Yes his is beholden to Nashira, he hates her and rises against her- but that's different to being actually branded into actual servitude.
I'm still having thoughts about this. I'll give the second book a go.
It's such a shame because the rest of the book is so richly layered. The locations are teeming with life and intrigue, the characters are complex and engaging. The worldbuilding is so, so good and I love the idea of the menacing, tyrannical Scion being a puppet government for the depraved, power crazed Nashira. But I just wish the slave/slaver romance trope would stop creeping into otherwise compelling, well crafted novels. It belongs in the book sin bin with the teenager/adult relationship, the pupil/teacher and the Nazi/Jew or the Guard/Concentration Camp prisoner romance. Less please.