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The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

October 12, 2010

This novel has been highly anticipated all over the blogosphere, so I know that I must be one among many thousands of people reviewing this book this week. Still, I couldn’t resist. There was no other book I would have reviewed. I practically pushed people out of my way to make sure I got my own copy. Not that was strictly necessary, mind you. I might have overreacted a teensy bit. Maybe.

Anyway, here’s the description:

First in an all-new series where seductive danger and steampunk adventure abound in the gritty world of the Iron Seas.

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.

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.


I was vastly relieved, when I finally got home and cracked this baby open, to know that all my anticipation was going to pay off. I’ve mentioned that this is my first Meljean Brook. It won’t be my last. She totally rocks. I was complaining last week about there not being authors like Kresley Cole around–and I think I’ve found someone I can admire just as much. Wheeee!

The Iron Duke is a Steampunk Romance–a category I’m very much hoping we’ll see more of in the future. According to the back cover, it takes place in the Victorian Age, but in the book, Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII has come to the throne. At least, I presume it is Victoria’s son Edward and not another one. At any rate, that places the time-line some after 1901–and presumably later–as the revolution that is so oft talked of in the novel occurred more than nine years ago. I’m assuming, furthermore, that the succession occurred in Brook’s world as it did in ours. The England of The Iron Duke is vastly, phenomenally, different from the England that we know from history. The major source of the difference is the two-hundred year oppression by the Horde that Brook’s England is still recovering from. The Horde managed to oppress the people of England by hiding “nanoagents” in the tea and sugar that was imported into the country. Once the nanoagents were activated, the Horde was able to make the English people act as they wished. One particularly heinous tradition of the Horde was to cause a sexual frenzy among all those old enough. The heroine of The Iron Duke is the product of such a frenzy. Mina’s father was a man from the Horde. Her features bear witness to this, which makes her the target for a great deal of prejudice.

The Iron Duke of the title is revered by the entire nation of England for destroying the tower that the Horde used to control them. Mina and the duke meet when a man is dropped on his front steps. In her capacity as a Detective Inspector, Mina goes to investigate the death. Things turn out to be more complicated than either of them realize and the consequences a great deal bigger. The investigation sends the duke and Mina on an adventure that is both harrowing and, for lack of a better term, intimacy-inducing.

Mina and the duke are both tortured charcacters. But Brooks has created a world–and in particular, an England–where virtually everyone is tortured. Mina is tortured by the prejudice that she experiences, by the gossip that surrounds her family, by the poverty they endure, by her memories of being controlled by the Horde. But she’s also a strong woman. As a result of the Horde’s oppression, this is isn’t post-Victorian England. As Mina puts it, they’ve all been compromised by the Horde. This is, in a way, liberating for women. They don’t have to worry about protecting their virtue–it’s already been taken from them. This is reflected in many things: Mina wears pants and she has a man’s job. Her sensibilities are far from conservative or prudish. This was a strange dichotomy for me. I was torn between the feeling that her thoughts and language were too modern to feel at all historic and reminding myself that Brooks was painting an England entirely unlike the England of our world. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it was entirely possible that such oppression could easily make people think and behave as the characters in The Iron Duke do. Besides, Brook’s England isn’t entirely changed. It is still very class-conscious. There’s a great deal of British nationalism. So it’s familiar and not familiar at the same time.

The eponymous duke (whose given name is Rhys Traehearn) is as intriguing a character as Mina. His past is just as tortured as Mina’s. He was oppressed just as she was–but not because of nanoagents. He’s not a gentleman, though he has his own code of honor. I basically loved him. I’m sorry that Mina got to him first. Only, the truth is, they’re perfect for each other. More importantly, they save each other. Life would be bleak for them both if they had never met.

I can’t say enough about this novel. I loved it that much. But, this time, I felt that my appreciation didn’t just come from storylines or characters that fed into my particular weaknesses. Brooks created a world that is both fascinating and horrifying, at turns. There are zombies all over France, for goodness sake. It’s the characters that make it for me. Even the secondary characters–even the characters who make three-sentence appearances felt real to me. I can’t wait to read the next novel of the Iron Seas. For now, I’m going to have to track down a copy of Burning Up, in which Brook introduced this world.

As much as I loved this novel, I did have two niggles. One was the overfrequent use of the word “shag”. Every time a character used it, it pulled me out of the story. It didn’t feel right, especially to the period. I looked up the etymology and discovered that it was used in the 19th Century but was considered very vulgar. At first, I thought, okay, guess I’ll have to get over that one. After all, the duke uses far more, er, graphic words. But I find that I can’t, really, because it pulled me out of the novel so much. For that reason alone, I can’t ignore that Brook’s use of it didn’t work for me. My other niggle was that I was confused about the Horde. Who were they? Where did they come from? What was their motivation? When I first read the blurb about The Iron Duke, I thought they must be vampires. They’re clearly not, but I don’t have anything to replace the theory with. This lack was especially significant because Mina was half Horde and the not knowing affected my understanding of her character.

Before I sign off, I want to mention the Steampunk aspect of this book. It definitely isn’t Steampunk-light. Contraptions abound in this novel–both ingenious and disturbing. It’s technology that is both wondrous and frightening. I loved it and I think you will too.

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