The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook
I was not prepared for this book.
My expectation for a steampunk romance was based on The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. Those books are light-hearted fun, filled with kooky inventions and a no-nonsense heroine. The steampunk part of Carriger's world provides an entertaining and funky backdrop for the story. The humor is very tongue-in-cheek, right up my alley.
The Iron Duke couldn't be more different. While Carriger's world is political, it's also quite silly (the effeminate vampire friend, quirky side kick, lusty werewolf husband). Brook's post-apocalyptic world is dark, atmospheric and sinister. There is nothing remotely funny about the politics in this book. The hierarchies of her society--the bounders, the buggers, the Horde, the military--are fraught with hostility and racial discrimination. While Carriger's creative steampunk inventions elicited a smile--such as Alexia's fully outfitted parasol--the mechanics of Brook's world are straight from a horror movie. Mechanical "bugs" infiltrate the human body, and are controlled by radio frequencies enslaving the entire human population of Great Britain. Horrifying images of humans with machines as body parts reminded me of Quentin Tarantino's movie Grindhouse...remember Rose McGowan's half-machine gun leg? She would fit right into this troubling world.
Mina's very existence is the result of unspeakable acts, and the fact that everyone recognizes her as a product of Horde rape is crushing. This blatant racial discrimination also evoked images of half-white/half-Asian children left behind in Vietnam after the war. There is a lot of dark and ugly political stuff in this book....a much darker spin on the alternate industrial revolution reality of a steampunk world than Carriger's version.
Overall, the book is excellent. The story is very compelling--suspenseful, riveting. Brook is a powerful storyteller. The heroine Mina is incredible. Saddled with an unbelievably traumatic family history, she has risen above it to become a force to be reckoned with...courageous and filled with integrity. Which is most troubling to the hero Rhys, who is mercenary without shame.
Mina is the real hero of this book. She is phenomenal. The scene where she saves Rhys and his crew from a sea monster is extraordinary. Dangling upside down from a rope, she shoots a harpoon into the creature's eye and saves the ship from its evil clutches. Rock on! The climatic scene where she again saves Rhys by throwing her body in front of a bullet intended for him is heart-wrenching. How fantastic that her mother quickly whips together a mechanical heart from various body parts to save her daughter. I have to admit that I thought about the metal stent in my artery as I read this scene. It made me feel a little bit better about my "spare part" and sort of cool in a steampunky way!
The relationship between Rhys and Mina is intense. He is the rugged, swash-buckling legendary hero...fearless, but filled with moral ambiguity. Mina fears the powerful feelings he evokes inside of her, reminding her of her mindless past, dictated by the Horde. The heady lust building between them is fantastic, but I actually found their physical relationship at times distracting from the overall story. (Did I just say that? What is happening to me????) It's difficult to blend a romantic and erotic story with a political fantasy like this. I sometimes felt like the story was jumping back and forth between the lusty relationship and the plot. I also wish we had a bit more insight about Rhys' character.
A few things bothered me. One, I didn't like the threat of Mina's younger brother being sold into sexual slavery/torture (or worse) being dangled over our heads for a good portion of the book. It made me tense and worried, and ended up being a false threat when we discovered he was fine.
Also, the hero's past was difficult to reconcile with his intense sexuality. If a hero has a sexually tortured past, it needs to be be pretty strongly addressed in a romance. (JR Ward did a fabulous job with this in Lover Awakened. She clearly showed how Zsadist's relationship with Bella healed this part of his tortured psyche). I don't think that Brook adequately addressed this in The Iron Duke, even though it did occur to Mina in one of the erotic scenes.
Finally, my biggest beef was the ending. Rhys was incredibly single-minded for most of the book...he would have Mina no matter what. He was willing to go to any lengths (illegal, immoral, etc) to possess her. Then, he sends her away after learning of her public humiliation concerning their relationship, and that's it. Even after she takes a bullet for him, he doesn't visit her. He just happens to see her in the street and stops to talk to her. A totally random meeting! Get out! That sure doesn't seem in character for this guy. The wrap up at the end (they finally profess their love for each other) could have been longer. It was a bit too rushed for me. If you're writing a romance, don't skimp on the HEA, baby!
Overall, this book is astoundingly good. It has fascinating world-building, strong political symbolism, and truly memorable characters. It opened up a whole new side of steampunk fantasy that has me utterly intrigued. Although I must admit Brook's vision scares the holy hell out of me. I think I'd rather visit Carriger's steampunk world--armed with a kick ass parasol of course.
(ETA: Please stop by The Quirky Ladies blog for a discussion of the steampunk genre. Is it here to stay? Or just a temporary trend?)