Monday, November 26, 2012

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

I read quite a bit of romance and fantasy fiction but I've never read anything that could be considered Steampunk.  You may ask "what is Steampunk?"  Well fortunately Sarah has this excellent post if you need an explanation.  To satisfy my curiosity I picked up The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook which is classified as a romance.

If you are looking for a light-hearted, quick, romantic read this is not the book for you.  There is a lot of world building that goes on as this is the first book in the Iron Seas series.  In the alternate history of this world, the Horde (the Mongol Empire), led by the grandson of Genghis Khan, maintains power over all of Europe with the help of their nanotechnology and advanced machines.  This book takes place in the Victorian era (1837-1901) and for the past 200 years or so the people of England were enslaved and controlled through their nano-infested cells (otherwise known as bugs).  How did the bugs get into the cells of the people of England? Through imported sugar and tea of course. What?  That is just genius and insidious. About 9 years before the Iron Duke begins, Rhys Trahaern sailed his ship up the Thames river and blew up the tower (I assumed this was the Tower of London), thereby destroying the radio frequency device that controlled the "bugs" and setting England free.  Rhys Trahaern is a national hero, he is now the Duke of Anglesey but is better known as The Iron Duke. 

The bugs allowed the Horde to do unspeakable things to the people of England by controlling emotion and free will. When the Horde decided they needed more slaves to work they would instigate a "frenzy" that made the people copulate with anyone or anything they happened to be near at the time.  The babies born 9 months after a frenzy were sent to creaches to be raised by the Horde. People were modified based on their trade, for instance a blacksmith might have a hammer in place of a hand.  The bugs allowed people to heal quickly so a hand could be cut off, replaced with some type of mechanical modification and that person could return to work pretty much right away.  Many of the upper class and titled nobility left England when the Horde started to take over and moved to the New World (i.e. America).  Now that England is liberated, these families (known as bounders) are returning to reclaim their titles and land. They look down upon the buggers yet without an injection of bugs to keep them healthy they are doomed to die a slow death from all the pollution and smog in the cities.  Not all of the titled nobility could afford to leave England and Inspector Mina Wentworth is from one of those families.  Mina, like the majority of English children, was born as a result of a frenzy and apparently her mother copulated with one of the Horde. Mina, despite her family name and position as a police inspector, cannot walk the streets without being attacked verbally and physically due to her Mongolian features.  Mina is also unique because her family had enough influence to raise her instead of handing her over to the Horde. However her mother did have a pretty extreme reaction when she realized that Mina was a mixed race baby. 

Mina and Rhys are thrown together when a body is dropped from an airship onto Rhys front lawn.  Mina arrives to investigate and Rhys is immediately intrigued.  In the course of the investigation they discover that there is a shadowy organization out to destroy all the buggers to make sure that the Horde can never take over again. The Horde is still out there controlling many countries.  Mina, who has never been outside of London, is swept up into the world of the Iron Duke.  A world that includes dirigibles, acrobatic airship captains, contraband bazaars, mechanical flesh, clockwork devices and automatons. Oh wait, did I mention the zombies? One of the Horde's many experiments on people resulted in zombies that don't age and eat every living thing in sight. If you manage to survive a zombie attack but have been bitten you will turn into a zombie.   

This book is incredibly complex due to the world building.  The romance is sprinkled in here and there so it seems like a secondary plot.  Rhys and Mina are extremely flawed and damaged individuals due to their upbringing under Horde control.  Mina is terrified of her emotions and afraid to let anyone in. She is also terrified of losing control over those emotions and being at the mercy of someone else.  Rhys has no idea what love actually is, he grew up in a group home and was sold to slavers at the age of 8.  Rhys is not a swoon-worthy hero, in fact, I'm not sure if I would even categorize him as a hero.  Rhys doesn't like people messing with his things and initially he only sees Mina as something he wants to possess.  However, Rhys believes in protecting and taking care of his possessions including Mina, something she has not experienced beyond her family and close friends.

It took me a while to get into this book.  I put it down several times during the first 100 pages but boy am I glad I picked it back up.  By the end of the book I was really rooting for Rhys and Mina and I loved the fantastical world created by Brook.  I picked up the second book, Heart of Steel, which tells the story of Yasmeen and Archimedes Fox, two characters introduced in The Iron Duke.  Heart of Steel was a much easier read, thanks in part to the detailed world building in The Iron Duke.  Am I sold on Steampunk?  I can't really say, but I am sold on this series by Meljean Brooks.

~ Amy, Adult Services

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