Charlotte Sycamore, narrator of the story, is certainly not your run-of-the mill alternate-Victorian teenager. For one thing, her father is Queen Victoria's own physician, elevating her to a social status that may be below that of the nobility but which is very comfortable indeed. For another, she likes to sneak out of Buckingham Palace at night and practice swordfighting with her friends, Peter and Jillian. They may be far, far below her socially, but she's happy to defy convention to enjoy their company.
But one night, right as the story opens, the threesome are attacked by savage dogs who appear rabid. Though their skill at weapons saves their lives, all three are bitten, Jillian gravelly so. And to add to the horror, the dogs are not normal creatures--they are mechanical monsters.
Charlotte makes it home after summoning help for her friends, but they are placed under guard, presumed victims of rabies. And indeed, Charlotte herself begins feeling ill. Snatched perusals of her father's mechanical tomes suggest the worse--that she's going to die. But even as her symptoms worsen, Charlotte cannot just let the mystery of the mechanical dogs lie.
Then Jillian and Peter escape from their virtual prison, but are wanted by the law. Matters get progressively worse, as Jillian nears death, and Peter and Charlotte sicken further. The rabid mechanical dogs are joined by mechanical bats of death, and Queen Victoria herself is in grave danger....unless Charlotte and her friends can stop the power-hungry twisted genius behind the murderous mechanicals.
So it's a fine story qua story, nicely paced and quite gripping. The alternate, steampunk Victorian setting was different enough to have zest, without being so different as to overwhelm the story. I especially like Queen Victoria's magical game pieces! The mystery, however, ends up solving itself--there isn't much actual detection being done by the characters.
There is a romantic triangle, of a mild sort, that is not desperately necessary to the plot. As well as the handsome Peter, Charlotte is good friends with an equally attractive young groom Benjamin; both are attracted to her. To add to her romantic difficulties, she's been engaged to a naturalist she's never met--he's out of the picture, naturalizing. For the younger reader, the somewhat unsubtle romantic intrusions may well be appealing; for readers who prefer meaningful build-up to young love, they may not:
"Take care of yourselves," Peter whispered, more to me than Benjamin. I thought I detected a look of longing in Peter's smoldering eyes, but then he turned away from me to bravely lead his sister out of danger, his shoulders squared and his long stride resolute. (pp 179-180).
It was hard to see Peter as a real person.
And indeed, the book never delivers any convincing depths for its central protagonist, let alone the supporting characters. Charlotte's interest in the mechanical and natural sciences, for instance, were all well and good--but this is presented at a surficial level, and not as a moving, intrinsically essential, part of her character (and she isn't at all convincing as a methodical, thoughtful, scientist). Charlotte makes friends with people well-below her social class, but this does not present more than an occasional awkwardness, and without contemplating any big, difficult questions, she's happy to help and be friends with poor people. For instance, she sends one of the Queen's own surplus baby blankets to a very impoverished barmaid, who cherishes it--I think in real life she'd pawn it quick as a wink.
In short, this isn't real life--it's an fairly entertaining mystery that doesn't ask hard questions of its reimagined historical setting, or expect too much in the way of characterization from its cast.
Note on age of reader: My 10 year old agreed heartily with me that the cover and premise were appealing, but I don't think that besotted teens are really his thing so I'm just going to pass this on to the library. Charlotte's a teenager, there are lots of romantic intrusions--not 10 year old boy stuff. The 11 to 12 year old girl, however, who hasn't yet read any fictional smolders, is the perfect target audience (the smoldering only goes as far as a passionate kiss).