The first half of this memorable story follows nine-year-old Gabby, and Kemple aged ten, as they attempt to deal with numerous challenges they are facing in their young lives. Gabby sees herself as something of a freak, not only because of her clockwork hand, but also because she’s skinny, has stupid freckles on her nose and cheeks, blurry green eyes and has to wear chunky telescopic goggles. No matter how many times her mother tries to convince her that “normal is so overrated” and that it’s better to be special, she just wants to be normal.

The demanding chores, the near-starvation and the beatings from his abusive foster father are things Kemple faces on a daily basis and he can see no hope of things getting any better. Then Josephyn comes to live in the foster home and when she breaks the rules and he protects her by taking a beating for her, a bond develops between them. Fearful of the risk of future beatings, she suggests that they run away together to Iron Bay where they’ll be able to take control of their own lives. However, when a scratch he receives from a feral cat becomes infected, Kemple has no idea of how far-reaching and devastating the effects will be.

The second half of the story starts when Gabby, now calling herself Brielle, is about to become sixteen and has become single-minded in her mission to seek out and kill the evil, cat-like monsters which roam the streets, intent on avenging the attack on her mother thereby ensuring that no one else should have to suffer the traumatic loss she did as a young child.
Meanwhile Kemple, now almost seventeen, is desperate to find a cure for the sickness which is blighting his life, at times making him unrecognisable even to himself. But how corrupted do you become when all you see is evil around you, when your only vision of the world is a starkly black and white one? When their paths finally cross each of them is forced to start questioning their definitions of monsters and monstrous behaviour, and perhaps to begin to believe in the possibility of a different future.

This is a richly multi-layered book, exploring themes which include bullying, abuse, the agonies of feeling different, the destructive nature of blind rage, the adolescent struggle for identity and a search for nurturing emotional connections with others. Although many of these themes are dark, there are also moments of delightful, lightening humour. The narrative switches between the points of view of the two main characters and I found that this added an impressive depth to the storytelling, contributing to my reluctance to put the book down once I’d started it … in fact there were moments when I was reading when I was reminded of being read bedtime stories when I was a young child and begging “please, please, pleeeease, just one more chapter”!

Each of the characters is convincingly drawn and developed, with even the more peripheral ones adding an essential element to both the dramatic and the psychological integrity of the developing story. I very quickly found myself feeling emotionally invested in what was happening to Gabby and Kemple and desperately wanted their lives to become less fraught with danger and trauma! The steampunk background, so vividly evoked by the author’s descriptions of Iron Bay, also incorporates myth, fantasy and horror, combining all these strands to form an increasingly tense and, at times, very moving story as the paths of the engaging and memorable protagonists eventually cross in a dramatic and shocking way.
I started this enchanting and compelling story quite late in the evening … and almost wished that I hadn’t because I was immediately hooked and ended up going to bed VERY much later than I’d planned, too tired to keep my eyes open any longer, but eager to pick up the book again as soon as possible! Being several decades older than the YA readership it’s aimed at, I think it’s a reflection of the author’s brilliant story-telling skills, as well as the convincing psychological insights he offers into his characters’ personalities and motivations, which made this such a satisfying read for me. So, whatever your age, I urge you to read it as soon as possible!

This is book one of the author’s Steambound Trilogy and, after the cliff-hanger ending, I for one hope that Kyle Richardson doesn’t make his readers wait too long for book two … and the knowledge that there will then be a third is surely a clue that there are many more adventures and challenges in store for these wonderful characters who have wormed their way into my heart!

With thanks to the author for a truly brilliant story, and to Meerkat Press for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Linda Hepworth 5/5*

Beast Heart by Kyle Richardson
978-1-946154-35-4 Meerkat Press Pbk 31st March 2020