The Iron Duke
by Meljean Brook, historical/fantasy (2010)
Berkley, $15.00, ISBN 978-0425236676
The Iron Duke is the first book of The Iron Seas, a steampunk series by Meljean Brook. Set in an alternate Victorian-era England where the country had pretty recently been liberated from the Mongol invaders called the Horde - no, I don't think that those rumors of this series being funded by Blizzard are true - this one sees a more technologically advanced world than real life history would allow. We have airships, the staple steampunk feature, along with nanomachines and more.
The Horde used nanoagents to control the people they ruled. These machines allow the Horde to dictate their subjects' actions and emotions. When the Iron Duke, Rhys Trahaearn, and his Marco's Terror crew managed to topple the Horde regime during a raid - with his fully socketed Glorenzelg, High-Blade of the Silver Hand, that deals 1487 damage, improves critical strike by 122, and confers bonuses +198 Strength and +222 Stamina, nobody stands a chance, I tell you - the liberated locals (called buggers due to the nanoagents inside their bodies) are still tad confused with the sudden resurgence of emotions inside them and some still don't know how to deal with them. Meanwhile, those English nobles who fled to America when the Horde attacked now make their way back to their homeland, seeking to reestablish their positions in the government and in society.
Mina Wentworth is the daughter of nobles who didn't manage to flee to America, and therefore, she is a bugger. Worse, she is half-Horde, conceived under traumatic circumstances that led her mother to gouge her own eyes out when Mina was born, and she looks half-Horde, which makes it very hard for her to fit in. She is a Detective Inspector, which is why she is called in to investigate a strange case of apparent homicide: someone drops a body from a high altitude into the household compound of the Iron Duke himself. Her investigation will lead her into a complex network of intrigue. Then again, when politics is involved, things are never so simple. Oh, and Rhys looms over, pressing Mina for a chance to conduct a raid into her dungeon.
I've always thought that Meljean Brook is a far better author of fantasy stories than of romantic tales, and The Iron Duke does little to change my impression. As a steampunk tale, The Iron Duke is a fantastic example of a first book in a series that reels me into an exhilarating finely-drawn brand new world and makes me hunger to discover more of this setting. What seems like a simple murder mystery soon turns out to a more complicated plot that unfurls in a most riveting manner. The elements of this plot only serve to make the setting come even more to life. The plot complements the setting, in other words, and the result is a superb vicarious adventure.
But egad, the romance is a bore. The problem here is that Rhys has walked out straight from the handbook of boring central casting alpha male character creation. The only thing more boring than Rhys would be a tree stump. He is of course tall and looming, arrogant and sullen, and having the obligatory hard life as a back story. He sneers, doesn't share stuff with Mina because he's a law onto himself, and says mean and cutting things to Mina because he's such an alpha male like that. He also insists to Mina that he'd have her in his bed even if she doesn't think so, and proceeds to take as much opportunity as possible to demonstrate how easy it would be for him to have her. All the way to the last few chapters, he demonstrates effortless ease when it comes to hurling unfair and even cruel accusations and insults to Mina when he feels that she has slighted him, and he only shows signs of remorse after the obligatory best buddy of his points out how childish his behavior is. This self-absorbed and immature twit is a tired patchwork of alpha male clichés, and it is very hard for me not to yawn every time he's doing that overplayed shtick of his.
Mina is a far more memorable character, but while she seems capable, it is unfortunate that Rhys decides to protect her - after all, she's his, you see, snort - and therefore I will never know how capable Mina truly is. She wags her fingers and asserts her authority here and there, but because she's always protected by those big braw men in this story one way or the other, she's never able to demonstrate how good she can be here. She's an interesting character as she's a pretty strong heroine in her own right, but when she starts swapping body fluids with Rhys, she gets infused with the bore factor as well. Poor Mina. She deserves a far more interesting love interest than Rhys.
So, to conclude, I do have a very nice time reading The Iron Duke, but I also feel that the romantic aspects of this story are one big ball of yawn. The story flies high when it's focusing on the plot, but it sinks like a sack of bricks when it comes to the romance. If only Rhys hadn't been such a boring and even insipid cliché, sigh.
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