by Meljean Brook, historical/fantasy (2012)
Berkley, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-718-19699-8
Lesbian colonies have long been a staple of the fantasy genre, but these are typically fuel for male onanistic fantasies, as the women in question are often nubile babes in chain-mail bikinis who would eventually be shown the light (turned straight, in other words) by the mighty virility of the hero. Meljean Brook's Riveted, however, takes this common trope - along with several others - and turns it into something that blends seamlessly into her steampunk historical Earth setting, and in good taste too. How nice.
I'm almost tempted to call this one a standalone novel, because the plot is self-contained and there are minimal references to events in previous books in the series. The setting is different, too, almost drastically so. This one, in fact, seems to pay homage to early science-fiction and fantasy works that are considered classics today, in particular two books by Jules Verne. Riveted is set in Iceland, it involves volcanoes, and the hero, David Kentewess, is a scholar searching for a hidden land based on clues found in a set of runes. As for the other book, well, it's a spoiler if I say anything more, so let's just say I'm leaving some bits for you to find out for yourself if you are interested, heh.
As I've mentioned, David is searching for a hidden land - his late mother's home, so that he can fulfill his last promise to her, to bury her beads in the place she was born. The thing is, he only has some clues to the whereabouts of this place. He doesn't know its name, and he doesn't have any solid lead to pursue. That is, until one fine day he spots a woman arguing with the security fellow in the port of Bergen, Norway, and recognizes her accent as similar to that of his mother's. He comes to her rescue and learns that she's a member of the crew on the airship Phatéon. How lucky that he's a passenger on that airship! But she's not too keen on spilling her secrets.
Annika Fridasdottor is one of the daughters of Hannasvik, a colony that has, since its founding, become a sanctuary for women who wish to remain apart from the world. Many of them are lesbians, and the outside world may not be kind to them. Therefore, Annika will not give up its location to David willingly, even if she is attracted to him. Besides, she has her own mission: to locate her missing sister. However, the issues between her and David may have to take a backseat when they are swept up in a plot involving what seems like mad scientists bent on carrying out a plan that may doom not only Hannasvik but the entire Iceland.
Riveted is actually a change of pace after the previous two books in the The Iron Seas series. The pace is leisurely for about two-thirds of this book, and there is a noticeably stronger focus on romantic elements compared to those previous books. It's a pretty intriguing romance. Born to an environment where it's a normal occurrence for women to love each other intimately, Annika is looking for love all this while, expecting it to arrive in the form of another woman. Oh, don't wince, this is not some Penis is Mightier than the Vagina thing, as Ms Brook takes a mature and respectful approach to Annika's sexual awakening. In other news, Annika is a heroine who can walk the walk as well as she talks the talk, so this is one heroine whom I actually can take a liking to without fearing for my blood pressure.
As for David, on paper, he's a deliciously interesting hero. Due to a horrific disaster in his childhood, triggered by a well-meaning but so messed up scientist, he not only saw his mother die in front of him, he is also badly damaged in one eye and missing an arm and leg. Prosthetic technology and nano bugs allow him to function like any other, but he has never formed any attachment to women as a result of his, er, bionic man status. In fact, he's pretty much a virgin. The thing is, this guy is - dare I say it - quite boring. Apart from his annoyance at being pitied or condescended upon for his "deformity", he is an all-round guy with sunny demeanor. He's tolerant of people of all color, creed, sexuality, and religion. He doesn't push or force his views on Annika, and he even backs off and respects her decision even when his back is against the wall. I'd love to know such a person in real life, but he and Annika often don't have a romance as much as they have a very agreeable shared philosophy in life.
It's quite odd, really, how I am lukewarm about the romance when Annika and David have some interesting baggage. Indeed, it is actually amazing to see how well Ms Brook included all these affirmative action sentiments in this story without coming off as too preachy, at least to me. This is a multicultural romance that also contains positive messages concerning homosexuals, women, and physically disabled people, but I never felt as if I was being bludgeoned in the head by Ms Brook with a giant RESPECT sign. These elements are part of the story, and in many ways, they are the story.
The late third of book is where the action kicks into high gear, and I love this part as things literally move to an explosive denouement. As much as I've had fun, I also feel that this part could have been fleshed out better. Too many twists and plot developments are introduced abruptly, and I wish I have more time to digest these things and the motivations behind them before the story rushes into a close. Perhaps the slower parts of the story, particularly the more circular scenes on board the Phatéon, could have been shortened to give the late third more room to develop.
At any rate, Riveted is a memorable read - the scenery is gorgeous and the atmosphere is fantastic. Reading this book is often a first class ticket to a lush and vivid vicarious adventure to this cold and hostile but beautiful land. This story is different, but it's a great kind of difference. It's really too bad that, while I like both David and Annika as lead characters, I can't make myself feel more enthusiasm for their romance. Not that it matters, as there is much to love here. Riveted? Oh yes, I am.
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