19 June 2011

Reading Romance: The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook

For those of you who are clueless, steampunk is a genre set in an alternate past, often with Victorian-era elements melded with industrial technology. Think airships, brass goggles, and the film Wild, Wild West. The Iron Dukeis steampunk romance with hot sex and more imagination than you'll find in most science fiction or fantasy novels. 

Together with Gail Carriger, Brook has set the standard for steampunk romance. This book has it all--tall, dark and handsome hero, smart heroine, and a world rich in detail and alternate history. Setting is industrial London, recently freed from the tyranny of the (Mongol) Horde. Citizens are 'infected' with nanoagents--which has some serious mind-control implications--and almost everyone has some cyborgian body technology. 

Brook wrecks havoc on British class conceits: her duke is a former pirate who was ennobled for destroying the basis of Horde power in England. Mina, the heroine, is daughter of an earl, but has the physical characteristics that mark her as half-Horde. Not Good. An unusual murder brings them together and from there the action is non-stop. 

The Iron Duke defies categorization (so thank heaven it got published--kudos to Brook's agent and editor). It's part adventure, murder mystery, romance, and alternate history with doses of speculative biology and political intrigue. The romance competes with the mystery/adventure plot and the technology, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Even so, the hero and heroine are on stage the entire time and their relationship provides much of the drama. The characters are completely original, while remaining believable. The sex scenes are steamy, explicit and wouldn't be out of place in an erotic romance. They're also very well written. 

A couple of minor issues kept this book from being a five-star keeper: The duke behaves out of character when he kicks Mina off the Terror. I didn't buy it, and Mina wouldn't buy it either. Second quibble: Mina's mother fashions a clockwork heart in thirty seconds. Seriously? Without tools, time, or specs? [I suspect both of these scenes suffered from an editorial imperative to cut text. If so, that's too bad.] 

While the romance is satisfying, the real reward of this book is taking a detour into a strange world peopled with intriguing, complex characters and an array of technology that's so inventive and well-conceived that it's almost a character itself. 

You don't need to like steampunk to like The Iron Duke. (You don't even need to know what steampunk is.) You just need to have a willingness to go someplace that's completely alien yet eerily familiar.

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