Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Iron Duke (book) by Meljean Brook

This is the first full-length book in Meljean Brook's Iron Seas steampunk romance series.


Not long ago, the Horde controlled England. Via nanomachines, bugs, everyone unknowingly ingested along with their imported sugar, the Horde controlled human emotions until Rhys Trahaearn, the Iron Duke, destroyed the Horde Tower that sent signals out to the bugs. The Iron Duke's acts of piracy prior to destroying the Tower should have branded him a criminal, but instead he was hailed as a hero.

Two centuries of enslavement have taken their toll, however. In the book's present, buggers, those who were infected with bugs by the Horde, are still trying to get their feet back under them and adjust to life with their emotions back under their own control.

Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth is faced with the unenviable task of investigating a dead body found on the Iron Duke's doorstep. If Trahaearn killed the man, she'll be forced to arrest a national hero. Luckily for her, the evidence soon points away from him, and Trahaearn and Mina even begin to work together.

Mina fascinates Trahaearn, to the point that he's determined to possess her. Mina is attracted to Trahaearn, but she wants to be more than just a possession. When their investigation uncovers a weapon designed to kill every single bugger within 200 miles, their relationship problems take a backseat to saving most of England.


(Throughout most of the book, Mina referred to Rhys as Trahaearn. The bits from Rhys's perspective referred to him as Rhys, and Trahaearn is awkward to type, so I have chosen to call him Rhys in this review.)

This book confused me too much for me to say that I loved it without reservations, but I did enjoy the heck out of it and plan to read everything else Brook has written that's set in this world and to at least try Brook's Guardians series.

For some reason I had gotten it into my head that this was a YA series (I think I was confusing it with Cassandra Clare's books), although I quickly figured out that wasn't the case. That bit of confusion was my own fault, but it wasn't the last time this book confused me. I spent a good deal of time wondering how people could tell that Mina and others were part Horde – if an explanation was given, I must have missed it. Also, I was never clear on whether the Horde was human or alien. The way they treated the English made me think they were aliens of some sort, because it was hard for me to imagine that humans would do such things to other humans, but then, after finishing the book, I read Janine's review over at Dear Author, which indicates that the Horde was composed of humans from some country in Asia.

My confusion should have resulted in a dislike of the book, but the characters and fascinating world carried me forward. From comments I've read, I gather that some people really disliked Rhys. I wasn't sure how I felt about him at first, but gradually he and Mina started to remind me a lot of J.D. Robb's Roarke and Eve. Like Eve, Mina was devoted to her job (although Mina's greatest devotion was to her family, an option Eve didn't have). She was attracted to Rhys, but was at the same time a bit frightened of him. Mina seemed to me to be slightly more fragile and damaged than Eve, while Rhys was a bit like what I imagine Roarke must have been like when he was younger, harder, and less polished.

The world The Iron Duke is set in is interesting, rich, and, at times, horrifying. When England was under Horde control, the Horde really did control everything. People couldn't feel emotions unless the Horde let them feel those emotions, and the Horde sometimes made people feel things they didn't really feel. For instance, Mina was conceived during a Frenzy – the Horde made Mina's mother and others feel lust so great that they had sex with anyone in the immediate area. How bad this was depends on how true some of the rumors are, but it's indicated in the book that some people in the grip of a Frenzy might have had sex with close relatives or even animals. Mina's mother was so horrified by what the Frenzy had made her do that she gouged her own eyes out when she was first presented with infant Mina. Mina herself only went through one Frenzy before the Horde was overthrown, but it was enough to scar her emotionally where sex was concerned.

I loved the progression of Mina's relationship with Rhys, although there was one instance where I worried that Brook was going to go places I didn't really want to go (she didn't – yay! - but I was so horrified at the thought of what I might be about to read that I had to take a break from the book to prepare myself). Mina and Rhys's first attempt at sex did not go well at all. They were drunk, and both of them had been damaged, in different ways, during Horde rule. I liked that once Rhys realized he had done something horrible to the first person he ever felt attracted to, he accepted what he'd done and whatever Mina might choose to do in return. Rhys could be overbearing at times, but, when he did something to truly upset Mina, he didn't try to make up excuses or pretend it hadn't happened.

The book started off with a bit of mystery – who was killed, and why was he left on the Iron Duke's doorstep? - and quickly became an action-filled adventure, a race to save Mina's younger brother as well as all the buggers living in England. The book felt very fast-paced to me, but some of that feeling might have come from the amount of stuff crammed into the story. To give you an idea, I made a list:
  • kraken
  • amazing prosthetics (and people with bodies that make accidental prosthetics a horrifying possibility – there's a story about a woman and a candlestick that will likely make most female readers shudder)
  • airships
  • zombies
  • the Blacksmith and his skill with mechanical flesh
  • modified animals, like ratcatchers (a bit like feral cats, only larger and metal-plated) and sharks (also fortified with metal) - amazingly, these modifications have now become part of the animals' genetics
And that list doesn't even include everything. I suppose it should/could have been overwhelming, but instead I was left with a feeling of excitement. There's so much that Brook could explore in other books and stories – I can't wait to read more works set in this world. It doesn't even matter to me that, from what I've read, Mina and Rhys aren't the main characters in any of Brook's other works. While I liked them and wouldn't mind reading more about them (I'd love to see how Rhys adjusts to Mina's family), I'm perfectly willing to see what Brook does with her other characters.

My plan is to read Brook's story in Wild & Steamy next. One, it'll be the easiest and quickest one for me to get, and, two, it stars Newberry, a fairly minor character in The Iron Duke, who nonetheless interested me. The next full-length book in the series, which isn't out yet, is going to star Yasmeen and Fox. I'm crossing my fingers that there will be a future book/short story starring one of the Horde (read the Dear Author review comments to see where I got that idea from), and I'd love something starring Scarsdale (if Berkley Sensation won't take a book or story starring a gay man, maybe it could be self-published, like Wild & Steamy?).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Naked in Death (book) by J.D. Robb - Compared to the world in The Iron Duke, the world in Robb's series feels almost normal and contemporary, except for the occasional robot and flying car. However, those who'd like something else featuring characters similar to those in Brook's book may want to try this. I have written about this and several other books in this series.
  • Baccano! (anime TV series) - For some reason, The Iron Duke made me think of this series, maybe because it, too, rewards those willing to put up with confusing bits and a potentially overwhelming amount of information. It's bloody, violent, crammed full of characters, and the story is told in a disjointed way. It's also tons of fun. I've written several posts about it.
  • One of the many Ghost in the Shell incarnations - If you don't mind something older (to my ear, the sound effects have a very dated feel), you can try the original movie. If you'd like something newer, you might try Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Whatever you go with, this might be a good series to try if you enjoyed The Iron Duke's technology, action, and strange and complex world. Be warned, though, that this series is heavy on philosophical chitchat. Also, there's very little in the way of romance and comfortable character relationships.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (anime TV series) - If you enjoyed The Iron Duke's action and technology, and if you liked how close and loving Mina's family was, despite all they had gone through, you may like this series. It's about two brothers who try to use alchemy (their world's version of science) to bring their mother back from the dead. Edward, the elder brother, loses one arm and one leg, while Alphone, the younger brother, loses his entire body. Ed binds Al's soul to a suit of armor and a family friend gives him an automail arm and leg to replace the limbs he lost. Resigned to never being able to see their mother alive again, the brothers want to at least get their bodies back. Fullmetal Alchemist the manga and Fullmetal Alchemist the anime are two very different but still enjoyable things. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, from my limited experience, follows the manga more closely than the previous TV series, but I would advise those new to the series to read the manga or watch the original anime series first.
  • Soulless (book) by Gail Carriger - I seem to remember this being mentioned in a discussion about steampunk books. I'm not sure how much like Brook's book it is, but it sounds like it's set in another complex and interesting world, and the main character, like Mina, is a bit of an outcast. Plus, there is mystery and romance. I hope to give this one a try at some point.
  • Silent in the Grave (book) by Deanna Raybourn - Lady Julia Gray is less capable and more naive than Mina, and I don't consider Nicholas Brisbane to be as appealing as Rhys (a personal preference - your opinion may differ), but something about Mina and Rhys made me think of Silent in the Grave. This is a mystery, but it does have some very slight supernatural elements. I don't know if those elements get stronger as the series progresses, but those who'd like another romance with a scowling, super-intense male lead might want to try this. I have written about this book.
  • Marrying Miss Marshall (book) by Lacy Williams - This is an inspirational (Christian) romance novel, but don't let that scare you off - the "God stuff" is really light. Those who'd like another romance with a strong female lead who risks her life for others' sakes, much to the terror of the male lead, might want to try this. I have written about this book.

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