Title: The Iron Duke (The Iron Seas #1)
Author: Meljean Brook
Published: October 1st, 2010
Steampunk alternate universe in which the Horde (Gengis Khan’s Mongols) invaded Europe centuries ago, infecting almost everybody’s blood with “bugs”. Some of the bugs turned people into mindless, ravaging zombies, and most of continental Europe is now a wasteland hunted by those creatures. In England, instead, bugs were used by the Horde overlords to brainwash everyone into slaves. Then, nine years ago, the titular Iron Duke destroyed the tower that the Horde used for mind control, and after a bloody revolt England is free again.
I’m really, really torn about this book. On one hand, I LOVED the worldbuilding. Society is still struggling to adapt after centuries of slavery — for example, the Horde had abolished marriages among the lower classes and babies were raised in crèches, so people don’t even have a concept of traditional family any more. It’s really interesting to see this alternative society in which noblewomen campaign for women’s right to marry instead of going to work.
And the steampunk bits! Aside from the bugs, which are used to make people stronger and resistant to illness or injury, there are a slew of machines and inventions: automatons, mechanical prosthetics, steam-powered carriages, airships… I always felt that a steampunk book is not really steampunk unless there’s an airship in it, and this book has one hell of an airship!
I haven’t even mentioned the characters yet. The protagonist is Mina Wentworth, a detective inspector with the London metropolitan police. She’s half-Horde, which means that everyone looks down on her and she goes everywhere escorted by a constable to avoid being harassed. (Or rather, to be harassed by fewer people.) When the story starts, she’s whisked away from a ball to investigate a mysterious death in the Iron Duke’s residence.
Now for the sad part of the review. I really really HATED the Iron Duke and the shitty romance that ensued. The problem is that the author built such a fascinating world, with such a different society, and then when it came to the romance she went for the rapey tropes that were outdated twenty years ago. The Iron Duke is a complete douchecanoe who falls in love/lust with Mina at first sight. Mina won’t give him the time of the day, so when she needs to go save his brother, he says that he’ll take her on his ship if she agrees to sleep with him in exchange.
Obviously the Iron Duke’s POV is full of crap about how he won’t force her because he loves her sooo much, but Mina is not a mind reader so she’s fucking terrified of the Iron Duke most of the time. Until she realizes she wants him too, and suddenly everything’s okay. What a good romance.
So I was judging the stupid Iron Duke for several chapters, but I couldn’t put the book down because they were on an airship! Things were happening! There were krakens and a threat to all of England! Zombies too! Gliders! My reading experience was a constant back and forth between “YAY STEAMPUNK!” and “EW ROMANCE!” — and I say this as a fan of romance. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to like the Iron Duke, I don’t mind romance tropes, I like romance tropes. I just hate the very shitty ones, like in this instance.
Everything would have been fine if the stupid Iron Duke had managed to behave like a decent human being instead of forcing his stupid self on Mina until she decided that she wanted him as well. And despite all of Mina’s weapons and the fact that her subordinates call her “sir”, that only makes me wonder why she doesn’t use her sword on the Iron Duke every time he gets into her personal space.
I’ve also read a couple of the novellas set in the same universe, “The Blushing Bounder” and “Here There Be Monsters”, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my enjoyment of those stories is inversely proportional to how much of a douche the male love interest is. Overall: awesome world, shitty men. Since the next books are about different people, I’ll try my luck and hope that those gentlemen will actually behave like gentlemen for a change. Otherwise I’ll have to do like Scarsdale, and get drunk or dose myself with opium whenever the Iron Duke is around.