This was a surprisingly good read, although I think part of the reason for that was because I had really low expectations to begin with. I was expecting a typical paranormal plot... which it kind of was, but despite all the cliches, I became very engrossed in the story and came to like most of the characters.
Tess is the maid of the once-wealthy Lisle family, accompanying them on their journey to the United States aboard the RMS Titanic. She is secretly planning to leave her service with the family once in New York, in hopes of making a new life for herself in the new country. But even before she steps aboard the famous steamship, she runs into some trouble involving the handsome Alexander Marlowe and his dangerous companion, Mikhael. With this, she is pulled into a world of dark secrets and romance, all set against the backdrop of the Titanic's first and last voyage.
Although the plot used many familiar tropes, there are a few unexpected twists. Claudia Gray did a good job in keeping them secret and revealing each one slowly over the course of the book. The characters are basically all familiar archetypes, but I did like that Tess was described as very pragmatic, even to the point of another character pointing out the fact that she lacks imagination.
Gray also tried to flesh out the minor characters, and I felt that is was mostly done well. I enjoyed seeing the contrast between Tess' life of servitude and the lifestyles of the Lisle family. I would have like a bit more information about Mikhael. As a villain, his motivations were explained but more so in the context of the greater Brotherhood; I would have like to see a bit more information about him personally, why he's so loyal to the Brotherhood, etc. The Brotherhood itself could have used some fleshing out. It's supposed to be this big scary organization but I didn't quite feel that from the book.
The romance developed quite quickly but that is to be expected when the ship had less than a week to journey. You can argue that it's unrealistic, but this is one of the few times that the whole instant connection trope actually worked for me. Psychologically speaking, attraction is heightened when there's some sort of stimulation to put the person in an excited state. Being in this state tends to amplify any emotions a person might have. In this case, the feelings of excitement, trepidation, uncertainty and hope that came with being on the Titanic, on her journey towards a new life, would be more than enough of a stimulant for Tess. All the roiling emotions would have put her in a more high-strung/excited state, so when confronted with a handsome young man, it's understandable that she'd be quickly attracted to him. I also liked the fact that Gray did not skirt around the issue of sex, especially with the historical setting, and addressed it head on.
The setting was not used as well as it could. There is a lot of name-dropping of turn-of-the-century historical figures, which really added nothing to the story and seemed more like Gray's misguided attempt to sound knowledgeable. The author's note at the end of the book reveals that while she did do some research for the novel, she was not terribly concerned with the details. This definitely showed, as it often felt like the research Gray did for the book consisted of rewatching James Cameron's movie. (On that note, fans of Cameron's Titanic would definitely enjoy this book, as it has all the romance and drama that the movie is known for.) I will say that knowledge of the Titanic's fate did add a layer of suspense to the novel. Readers will be on the edge of their seats, anticipating the big event, and wondering what it will mean for the characters.