The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook

>> Saturday, October 30, 2010

TITLE: The Iron Duke (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Alternate version of 19th century
TYPE: Steampunk Romance
SERIES: First single title book in Iron Seas series, which started with short story Here There Be Monsters.

REASON FOR READING: Autoread author, and Here There Be Monsters was amazing.

After the Iron Duke freed England from Horde control, he instantly became a national hero. Now Rhys Trahaearn has built a merchant empire on the power — and fear — of his name. And when a dead body is dropped from an airship onto his doorstep, bringing Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth into his dangerous world, he intends to make her his next possession.

Mina can’t afford his interest, however. Horde blood runs through her veins, and despite the nanotech enhancing her body, she barely scratches out a living in London society. Becoming Rhys’s lover would destroy both her career and her family, yet the investigation prevents her from avoiding him…and the Iron Duke’s ruthless pursuit makes him difficult to resist.

But when Mina uncovers the victim’s identity, she stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens the lives of everyone in England. To save them, Mina and Rhys must race across zombie-infested wastelands and treacherous oceans — and Mina discovers the danger is not only to her countrymen as she finds herself tempted to give up everything to the Iron Duke.
Wow. Just... wow! I worried before I started The Iron Duke. My expectations were sky-high, a combination of one of my favourite authors, a genre which, even though I've had limited experience with it, appeals to me immensely, and a short story prequel (Here There Be Monsters, from the Burning Up anthology) which comfortably took a place amongst my top 3 short stories ever.

But I'm very glad to be able to report that every single one of those sky-high expectations was fulfilled, and how! Great characters, exciting adventure and romance in equal measure, and a fully realised world which I can't wait to keep exploring. Brilliant!

The Iron Duke is set in a sort of alternate version of the 19th century. A couple of centuries earlier, the Mongols (called the Horde here) used their technological advances to conquer their way through Europe. The very sneaky way in which they conquered the British Isles was through infecting sugar with nanoagents. Once these where inside people's bodies, the Horde could use radio transmitters to control the infected completely. They could control their bodies, but also, on a somewhat brutal level, evenwhat they felt, including sexual arousal. This went on for years and years, with the British having no way to fight back against Horde control.

Some 8 years before the start of the story, though, everything changed. A pirate called Rhys Trahaearn suddenly sailed up the Thames and blew up the Horde's main transmitter tower, shattering their control completely. Since then, the country has been slowly recovering after so many years when society didn't work like a society at all, and Trahearn has become a national hero. He has been made Duke of Anglesey, and is revered by the British people, who call him the Iron Duke.

Mina Wentworth is a Detective Inspector with the Police. When a dead body is found right outside the Iron Duke's residence in the Isle of Dogs, Mina is called in to investigate. Anglesey isn't initially too happy to have the police sniffing around (he'd much rather deal with the matter himself), but Mina is just as determined to get to the bottom of things. And after he meets her, and becomes both impressed with her professionalism and determined to get her in his bed, Anglesey is quite happy to merely stick close while they investigate together.

Making my way through The Iron Duke was a complete feast for me as a reader. There was just so much in there that I absolutely adored. Like with Here There Be Monsters, I didn't want the book to end.

It's hard to decide what my favourite thing about it was, but the worldbuilding was so brilliant that it has to be it. Detailed, imaginative and extremely original, it made me hungry to know more, especially because this being the first full-length book in the series, there was so much new stuff to explore. I was like "Yay, zombie-infested continental Europe! This is so cool! Oh, no, no, I don't want to leave, please let's stay here a bit lon... ohhhhhh, a city made wholly out of airships tied together and floating over Africa! Can we visit? Pretty please?". It's all extremely cinematic, too, done in a way I could picture the locales (and the non-stop action happening in them) perfectly.

And it's not just the places and the history of what had happened in different places during the period of Horde domination (it might be a weird comparison, but the latter sort of reminded me of how I feel when JD Robb offhandedly mentions things like the Urban Wars in her In Death series. I always want to know more, and would like nothing more but to read a History textbook about it). It's also the technology (some, like the prosthetics and nanoagents, a lot more advanced than what we have today, but in a very cool "steam" way), and what all those years under the Horde, with, for instance, most babies being raised in communal creches, did to the way society works. Like I said, there's a lot of stuff here, but it's all coherent, all fully realised, and all perfectly integrated into the story, in such a way that it never feels like exposition.

And even with so much stuff crammed in, the romance and the characters aren't overshadowed in the least. This is not a simple romance storyline, where hero and heroine fall in love while they face an external threat. They face an external threat, all right (and it's quite a doozy), but there are some very real obstacles in their relationships, not least that Mina, while appreciative of Trahearne's actions in freeing the country of the Horde, doesn't forget that before his famous sail up the Thames, he was a pirate and slaver. Knowing this, his dogged and often tactless persistence in trying to get her into his bed is quite scary to her (this is not helped by the fact that Trahearne is initially quite an oblivious, almost assholish character, without much in the way of social skills).

And as if that weren't enough, there's also the difference in status. Mina's family's part of the nobility, technically, but it's all a lot more complicated than that in this world. Life under the Horde wasn't that much easier for the nobility than for anyone else, so although they still have some status, Mina's family are impoverished and depend on Mina's job (at risk due to Trahearne's attention) to make end meets. Not to mention the way society would view a relationship between them. Mina is half-Horde, the product of a rape during one of the Frenzies the Horde induced periodically, mainly to make their labour pool reproduce. Now that the Horde is defeated, the very sight of her inspires hate in too many people, to the point she always needs to be accompanied by her constable to prevent people from attacking her.

Seeing this two amazing characters work their way through all those minefields was immensely enjoyable, even if parts are so powerful that they are actually a bit uncomfortable to read. I know some readers have felt disturbed by the first sex scene, which brings up some issues with consent, since all those years when her very bodily reactions could be controlled against her will have understandably had quite an effect on Mina's psyche. I don't want to give too much away, but I'll just say that I had no problems with it at all, even though I see where people would have issues with it. I just didn't feel I was being fed a "he knows what her body wants better than she does" line, and that made all the difference.

This is already much too long a review, but rereading what I've just written, I'm struck by just how much else was there that I haven't even mentioned. Buggers vs. bounders, Mina's family, including her mom, with her tragic past and amazing prosthetic bionic eyes, Scarsdale, Yasmeen, the explorer Fox and his sad fate (can't wait to see what's up there), and much, much more. I really, really hope this series does well, because I want MORE!



Marg,  30 October 2010 at 13:01  

I own Meljean's first book, but haven't read it, and now own this one, but haven't read it yet! I guess I really should?

rosario001,  30 October 2010 at 18:47  

Oh, yes! Marg, I think you would absolutely love her books.

Bona Caballero 7 August 2014 at 08:36  

I haven't read any steampunk novel until I discovered this book in my AAR Challenge.
OMG! I simply loved it -the characters, the plot, the worldbuilding.
I've already read the second one and three novellas or short stories.
I haven't read 'Riveted' yet, but I will, as well as the 'The Kraken King' -whenever it's published together as one book. If I remember well, your review about this serial novel was great!

Rosario 9 August 2014 at 08:18  

Bona, had you read her before? Much as I adore the Iron Seas series, the Guardians series is even more fabulous. I envy you discovering these books for the first time!

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