The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have to hand it to Meljean Brook. She created a wonderfully-detailed and fantastical world in this book. If a reader is wondering what 'steampunk' is, I will definitely point them towards this book. I was very impressed how she integrated nanotechnology into her world-building, and the nanotech fit very well in this universe. There are some aspects that seem rather dystopian, despite the fact that this is a Victorian-like setting. The use of robotic technology has some great applications, but some are rather horrific. In this story, a large degree of the world, particularly Europe and associated continents, has been subjugated by the Horde, which I intepreted to be the Mongols (as in Genghis Khan). Many of the major cities of Europe are under occupation or have been razed to ruins. Zombies roam the unoccupied territories, humans who were infected by nanobots that caused them to become vicious, cannibalistic monsters. However, many regular humans are infected with nanobots that enhance them in many positive, and some negative ways. The problem is that the Horde can control those humans, called buggers, with radio signals. In this world, the Horde are hated and despised, which creates a lot of problems for the heroine, Mina. She is the product of a Horde "frenzy" in which control of her mother's body (via control of the nanobots by radio signals) was overtaken by the Horde, and she engaged in a Horde orgy, resorting in Mina. She was so horrified at the sight of her half-Horde baby that she gouged her eyes out. Yeah, right away, I knew this story was going to be kind of dark.
I was very impressed with the meticulous world-building and attention to detail in this story. In addition, there are several major players who all want a say in the future of England, and the rest of the world, grabbing any kind of power or edge they can to gain that. This book has everything: mechanically-enhanced humans and animals, pirates, zombies, giant sea monsters, airships, you name it. However, it was so well-done, it never came off as over-the-top. While this book probably wouldn't work for straight romance fans, or even some fantasy/science fiction fans, I loved it, because I got a kick out of how imaginative and unique this Victorian world was. Despite my enjoyment, this wasn't an easy read for me. I often had to reread certain passages to make sure I was getting a clear understanding (that's not due to Ms. Brook's fault, but to my inexperience in reading a lot of science fiction-type literature and not having a head for political intrigue storylines). That's okay, because I wanted to get a full grasp of this book, and it certainly enhanced my enjoyment.
In my opinion, Ms. Brook didn't let her romance fans down. The love story between Rhys and Mina is equally important. I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Iron Duke when I started this book. When he showed up, I was not disappointed. He's a very unique character, which some aspects that I had not encountered in a hero thus far. I loved his vitality, his ruthless nature, his determination. Mina has a pull on him that compels him throughout this book. He is the kind of man who will move mountains to get his woman, which definitely works for me. Even outside of that, I respected him for his strength in enduring a very rough past, his determination to do what was necessary and to protect others. He might have seemed self-absorbed (he put importance on protecting what was his, whether it was his ship, the sailors, on it, or his properties and subjects as the Iron Duke). He didn't really like the ceremony of being a Duke, but he took the responsibility seriously, because that was the kind of man he was. He wasn't a smooth, refined character, which is fine with me. When he considers his feelings for Mina, they are described in a very rough way, but the emotions behind them are pure, and he definitely shows his love for her, not just physical infatuation.
As for Mina, I couldn't have liked her more as a heroine. She's tough, really tough. But she's not hard or frustrating. Any armor she has, I can't fault her for it. Because of her heritage as half-Horde, she is despised by many in London. They try to attack and harm her physically, so she has to have a bodyguard at all times, the hulking but gentle Constable Newberry. Those who don't hate her, fear her because her features remind them of the Horde. This aspect of the story hit home with me. Prejudice of any kind always does. Being judged by your features, your heritage, the color of your skin is wrong. Even if there are many of your heritage who are bad, that doesn't mean that you are. Because of being a woman and half-Horde, Mina has to work four times as hard just to be respected for her abilities as a Detective Inspector, and she's not afraid to do that. Rhys determined pursuit is a huge problem for her. She knows that their involvement is just going to cause more fodder for the distrust and lack of respect that the public holds for her. Even if she's very attracted to him, and he reaches her carefully guarded heart.
The relationship between Rhys and Mina develops very well. They start out as untrusting allies, with a reluctant attraction. As the story progresses, they come to respect and understand each other, and the love blossoms between them naturally. And their passion is red-hot. Rhys is a primal, demanding lover. However, he doesn't force Mina. Understanding what her issues are about being in control of her passions, he patiently works past those issues, and it's a beautiful thing to read. He won't be the kind of guy who whispers sweet, elegant words in a woman's ear. But he shows and tells a woman how much she means to him in simple, but effective ways. That definitely speaks to me. As for as Rhys and Mina getting their HEA, just being in love wasn't enough. They had to deal with the issues that they faced with their enemies, and the society they lived in. Although the romantic in me loves when a couple can easily surmount obstacles and be together, the realistic knows that's not always a simple thing. I like that Ms. Brook didn't allow their problems to just blow away in a puff of smoke because Mina was a "great person" and Rhys was the powerful "Iron Duke." However, I was completely satisfied with the romantic conclusion in this story, which I am very glad to say.
My experience with steampunk is fairly limited, but I love the ideas and the concepts of this genre of fantasy/science fiction. I highly recommend this novel to a reader who wants to experience this genre. Although this is not a simple world, there's a very fascinating world here that Ms. Brook created. The complex textures--Victorian setting, science fiction, fantasy, pulp fiction, adventure, romance, seafaring/pirate elements--just made this an even better read for me. This was a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing book, and I will be looking out for the forthcoming books in the Iron Seas series with great expectation.
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