Here There Be Monsters, by Meljean Brook

>> Thursday, September 02, 2010

TITLE: Here There Be Monsters (from Burning Up anthology)
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

PAGES: Approximately 110 in my ebook reader

SETTING: Alternative version of Victorian England and the high seas
TYPE: Steampunk romance
SERIES: Starts the Iron Seas series

REASON FOR READING: Love the author.

Meljean Brook launches a bold new steampunk series as a desperate woman strikes a provocative — and terrifying — bargain to gain overseas passage.

It's been a couple of years since the people of Britain were able to liberate themselves from the Horde, who controlled their bodies for years through nanoagents in their blood. Ivy Blacksmith had been one of their slaves, so she's terrified when she wakes one night unable to move, just as when her body was controlled by the Horde, while men search the room where she sleeps.

When they leave and she can move again, Ivy knows she needs to leave London as fast as possible. She has barely any money, but she has her skills making and repairing any sort of mechanical machinery. In her job she has come into contact with Eben "Mad" Machen, a notorious and very scary pirate who helped defeat the Horde. What Ivy has seen of him makes her think he might be a reasonable man, so she goes to him to request passage on his ship.

But his price, a demand that she sleep in his bed during the voyage, isn't reasonable at all. When another way to escape presents itself almost immediately, Ivy reneges on her deal and disappears. But Mad Machen is not someone you can escape from, and a couple of years later, he finds Ivy again. And still insists she honour their deal.

I know it's silly, but after my love letter to Meljean Brook's previous book, I almost feel like I should give one of her books a bad grade if I don't want people to think I'm a complete fangirl. Well, that will have to wait, because there's no way I can say that this short story was anything but wonderful.

What a difference a few years make! Here There Be Monsters serves the same purpose for the Iron Seas series as Falling for Anthony did for the Guardians. But much as I liked FFA, I can't deny that there was way too much going on there for a short story, and it felt a bit unfocused.

This one wasn't like that at all. I know this is a much longer review than I'd usually do of a short story (or could we say this is a novella?), but that doesn't mean that's because the actual story is bloated or massive. Somehow there is plenty of room in that short length both to develop Eben and Ivy's relationship and to do some very good worldbuilding.

The romance was just perfect. Ivy is vulnerable but brave, and Eben is a really endearing hero. It's not a spoiler to reveal that he's not an evil scary rapist out to rid Ivy of her virginity, but a shy and somewhat socially awkward man who has worshipped Ivy from a far for ages and who finds himself hobbled by the tough image he needs to maintain in order to keep control of his ship. When Ivy comes to him originally, he's been gearing up to starting courting her, but her sudden appearance throws him and then nothing he says comes out right. Seeing Ivy start to realise who this man really is was just lovely.

The way their relationship develops has this kind of old-school pirate romance feel to it, but with enough twists to feel fresh and make me (NOT a fan of your typical old pirate romance) love it. I especially loved the scenes with Ivy's coins. Money changing hands in bed could have felt very sleazy, but it didn't at all here. It actually turns into something completely different, a sort of commitment device, and I really liked how that worked.

The story also works very well as an introduction to the world in which this series will be set. There are plenty of questions still to be answered (especially since the set-up is that the main big Good vs. Evil fight has already happened), but this felt enticing, rather than puzzling. There is not too much exposition, the information about what the Horde is and what they did and how they were defeated is worked into the story, and it all makes me want to find out more.

I actually don't usually like short stories all that much. But this one was not just a good short story, it was a good story, period. And I think it wouldn't have been nearly as good in longer form, although the part of me that tried to read slower and slower as the end approached, just to stay in that world, might disagree.



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