Review: The Iron Duke

With the Thanksgiving weekend coming up, here’s something a little different for you — something for the grown ups to read! Yes, I sometimes read books for grownups, and this steampunk romance is a fun, entertaining, hot read for the weekend.

  The Iron Duke (A Novel of the High Seas) by Meljean Brook. Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: A dead body has been found on the estate of the Duke of Anglesey and Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth has been called to find out what happened. It’s a delicate situation. The Duke is Rhys Trahaearn, the pirate who nine years ago freed England from the control of the Horde. Mina knows that the investigation will be difficult, because Rhys is a pirate made respectable, a national hero, adored. Mina, on the other hand, is the oldest daughter of an impoverished Earl — and she is also half Horde. The Horde had enslaved England and its people in every possible way, and every time people look at her, they can only see their enemy.

Investigating the mysterious death is not going to be easy. It turns out that Rhys is not a suspect — so Mina doesn’t have to worry about accusing the most popular man in England of murder. Together, Mina and Rhys discover a conspiracy that could threaten England itself. Mina must also fight a growing attraction to Rhys. 

The Good: This book is AWESOME. But before I get into all the amazing wonderful reasons I love this book and want there to be many, many more, let me be one hundred thousand percent clear: Adult Book. For grown ups. For the romance section of your library, or general fiction, or science fiction. This is for YOU. Enjoy it over Thanksgiving.

The Iron Duke is alternate history, set in a Victorianish world where the Horde (the descendants of Genghis Khan) successfully invaded Europe and England. Those of you wanting all the specific details can check out the author’s website for the exact details. There are airships, and steam powered vehicles, and nanoagents. Why, what is a nanoagent? Small bugs that were introduced to the English, hidden in sugar and tea. Once activated by the Horde, the Horde could use radio waves to control the nanoagents and thus control the people — their actions, their emotions, their bodies. Strong emotions, that may lead to rebellion? Done away with. What would make a miner or seamstress better? Why, having their tools be part of their bodies! The nanoagents help incorporate the metal into bodies, but also helps people heal, go faster, be stronger — be better workers for the Horde. And if the Horde thinks not enough babies are being born to create new workers, they order a Frenzy. A Frenzy is… well. I told you this was for grownups.

Brook does an amazing, astonishing world building. I was blown away by this intricate alternate history, and how careful Brook was in what she told the reader. Obviously, she put a lot of thought and research into The Iron Duke, but she resists the temptation to infodump all she knows on the reader. We don’t know all the history, we don’t even know all the present day politics and events. We know what Mina and Rhys know, we  learn what we need to make this work. Any science fiction or fantasy writer should take a look at the way the history is told, is related, to see how less is more even when dealing with a complex alternate historical and technical world.

Mina and Rhys are two smart, flawed people. Mina is half Horde as the result of a Frenzy. She herself was old enough to be subject to a Frenzy before the Horde were driven out of England. Mina’s past makes her who she is: smart, driven, enough of an outsider to be a good observer, enough of an insider to know how people think. She doesn’t trust easily — not other people and not herself. When you’ve learned you cannot control your own body, your own emotions, your own feelings, how can you trust anything? And that is another thing — her past is part of this story. Mina’s relationship with Rhys is one she fights, not because she doesn’t like him, but because she has to learn to trust herself before she can trust herself to be with him. Also? Mina’s past is not unique. Her entire country – including Rhys – is full of people trying to figure out the same things. Bad things didn’t just happen to Mina, or to Rhys. They happened to everyone.

Rhys. Rhys is hot. And he is strong, impulsive, loyal, smart, a leader. Like Mina, he has things in his past which means he keeps people at arm’s length. Rhys is attracted to Mina but he has his own issue about emotional intimacy. Sigh. It’s so much fun seeing these two people, attracted to each other yet being held back by their own baggage.

This is a love story, yes, a love story between Mina and Rhys. But it’s not the only love story here: it’s also the love between friends and family. Rhys, an orphan, has created a family out of friends, one bound with loyalty. Mina may be the child of rape, but she is also the adored daughter of her parents. Her parents are amazing people — despite the Horde trying to control strong passions and emotions, despite being subject to multiple Frenzies, despite all their hardships, her parents love each other and love all their children.

Oh, and while this is a romance, and steampunk, it’s also a mystery! A very well crafted mystery which I didn’t figure out ahead of time.

Did I mention the hot romance? And that it’s a romance for adults? It is steamy. Rhys and Mina work through their issues with physical and emotional intimacy. A lot.

Oh, and before I forget! ZOMBIES. Yes, there are many, many zombies.

There are no unicorns, but given the technology which has included some genetic mutations and scientifically altered creatures, I wouldn’t be surprised if they show up at some point.

I have some questions about how the nanoagents work and the Horde and other details. But you known what? I trust Brook. My questions are just because Brook has created such a believable, real, world that I want to know more. I trust that we may have those answers in future books. Heart of Steel is due in November 2011; I’m hoping we see even more!

One more thing. No, this isn’t for your middle school. No, it isn’t for your high school. Ask your adult fiction selector to buy it. Your teens who are excited about books where a couple may or may not kiss? Yes, this is not for them.


7 thoughts on “Review: The Iron Duke

  1. Yeah, I think trust is the key. As a reader, I trust that Meljean Brook has a plan, knows the world she created inside out, and that we’ll get our questions answered eventually. (Plus, her blog cracks me up.)

    Not sure if you’ve picked up the BURNING UP anthology yet, but as much as I liked THE IRON DUKE, I liked “Here There Be Monsters” even more. And, back to trust, I actually bought BURNING UP solely for the Brook story, and I don’t think I’d do that for any other author.


  2. Trisha, “trust” in the author is so important. Here, I am totally in trust. And I just ordered BURNING UP just for the Brook story!


  3. This sounds fabulous! I can’t decide whether to buy it as a gift for someone else and read it first, or just by for myself although that is against my December rules.


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