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REVIEW: The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

Dear Ms. Brook,

The Iron Duke is a steampunk romance and it is very different in setting and genre from most of the romances I've read. It’s not really paranormal, but rather science fiction set in a partly-historical setting. A kind of "what if" world. What if nanotechnology had been invented by the Asian nation the characters refer to as the Horde, and used to enslave Britain’s citizens?

The story takes place nine years after a revolution in which the nanoagent-infected English (who are known colloquially as "buggers" – and this is no insult to them) have overthrown the Horde, but the buggers are still traumatized by two centuries of enslavement. They are also enhanced by the nanotechnology. The setting feels like late 19th century or perhaps early 20th century.

Iron Duke by Meljean BrookWilhelmina "Mina" Wentworth is half-Asian, the product of a rape, so even though her mother is a countess, Mina is on the receiving end of a lot of bigotry and hatred. As the story opens, Mina, a police "inspector detective," (the bugger nobility is poor and many have to work for a living), is attending a ball in honor of the Iron Duke, an ex-pirate who destroyed the radio tower that controlled the nanoagents.

The Iron Duke, who scorns high society, isn't present, but Mina realizes she will soon meet him anyway when Constable Newberry, Mina's assistant arrives at to escort her to the Iron Duke's estate, where a dead body has been found.

Rhys Trahaearn, nicknamed "the Iron Duke," is an ex-pirate who was awarded a dukedom for the role he played in the revolution. The body found on the grounds of his estate turns out to be someone who fell from high above, and the dead man's face has been destroyed beyond recognition. Mina suspects that the man was dropped from an airship.

It soon becomes apparent to Mina that the duke's new steward called the police without consulting his employer, and that at first Rhys doesn't want Mina or any other detective investigating, because if the murder is connected to him or any of his people, he intends to bring the killer to his own brand of justice. Mina is just as determined not to allow Rhys to overstep the law.

Equally apparent, and unwelcome, is Rhys's attraction to Mina and Mina's own response to him. Mina distrusts Rhys and does not particularly like him, and knows his attentions would only bring even more hatred and bigotry toward her and her loved ones, so when he announces his intention to have her in his bed, she plans to resist with all her will.

But as the investigation proceeds and Rhys accompanies Mina through various dangers, Mina reluctantly begins to respect and like Rhys. And when they unearth a threat that endangers all of England, Mina finds herself wanting something she believes she can never have — not with Rhys and not with any other man. Will she be able to continue resisting, or will she lose her heart to the Iron Duke?

The main characters in The Iron Duke are lovable and endearing. Mina shows considerable determination and courage in pursuing justice despite facing many obstacles, some of which come from the other buggers' reaction to her race. It is not unusual for some to try to assault her for being of Asian descent alone, much less for most to look at her with hatred in their eyes, but she carries herself with dignity and does not allow anything to prevent her from doing her job.

Rhys is equally courageous and determined. Like Mina, he has a painful past, and has overcome a lot. His strength of will, as well as his eventual caring for Mina and his great admiration for her, made him very appealing. I especially loved him for not giving up on Mina, even though she rejected him countless times because of her fears.

The Iron Duke is a riveting book — so riveting that it was only after I finished reading that I realized I was missing some pieces of character development that I'd have liked to have seen.

Rhys's reaction to Mina is very different from the way he feels about other women, but I never got a strong sense of why that was. There is a lot to admire in Mina, and I loved her, but being told that Rhys "admired the hell out of her" wasn't quite enough for me — I wanted to see that admiration forming, through his eyes, in the early parts of the book. So much of the beginning of the story was devoted to Mina's POV, and to how she comes to begin to like Rhys, that I felt I didn't get enough of the other side of the equation in that section.

Later in the book, Mina has a trauma to overcome, and much attention is given to that. But Rhys also has serious trauma in his past, and yet, it doesn't seem to affect his interactions with Mina that deeply or even to cross his mind more than a couple of times when Mina is coping with the horror in her past. I would have liked to have heard more about how what he suffered affected him in the past, and even to have seen it affect him more in the present – not because I wanted to see him suffer, but in order to find him more believable.

We spend more time in Mina's head than in Rhys's, but there is also a piece of her past that I would have liked to know more about. Mina has a loving family, but it is made clear that her mother did not always look at her daughter, the product of a rape, with love. I wanted to know how that changed, and whether Mina had any early memories from before her mother had loved her. How did Mina feel when she first learned of her mother's actions right after Mina's birth? All that rich terrain was never mined in the book.

The setting is vivid and well-constructed. I'm not entirely convinced that technology could have developed as it does in this book, but I think the juxtaposition of advanced, science fictional developments like nanoagents with 19th century technologies like gaslight are part of the fun of the steampunk setting, and I loved all the thought that went into the construction of the world. It felt developed to a greater degree than most fictional worlds in the romance genre and I liked that there was so much detail to it. It truly seemed like a whole world, and not as if we were only seeing a corner of the world.

I wasn’t always comfortable with one aspect of this world – that the Asian “Horde” are the bad guys, or at least, the bad guys in the backstory (the present day story has a mysterious group of men of Eurpoean origins as its villains). This is somewhat balanced out though, with the half-Asian heroine who frequently faces down racism.

The worldbuilding is also complex and therefore occasionally puzzling but continuing to read cleared up that confusion. It almost certainly helped that I'd first read "Here There Be Monsters," a novella set on this same world which precedes this novel and appears in the Burning Up anthology.

In addition, every once in a while I'd come across some contradictory detail that momentarily confused me about the characters' past. For example, there's this bit in Rhys' POV about Mina's father: "He glanced up and regarded Rhys with an inscrutable, penetrating gaze. No question where his daughter had inherited it." These two sentences confused me because it's made clear in other places in the book that Mina's father is not her biological father, but I had spent the beginning pages trying to determine whether or not that was the case, so when I reached this line, my earlier confusion briefly returned.

Despite all the aforementioned issues, I'm giving this book a high grade because I had a wonderful time reading it. I was totally sucked in, so much so that I skipped dinner and read until late at night to finish it. I kept telling myself I'd put it down and go to sleep, but it felt impossible to do so.

The mystery surrounding the dead body and the adventures it led Rhys and Mina to undertake entertained me almost as much as the romance, which was sexy and heartwarming. What's more, the book felt truly different from other romances, even the other steampunkish romances I've read in the past. For its freshness, its riveting plot and its lovable characters, I give The Iron Duke a B+/A-.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

Book Link | Kindle | Amazon | nook | BN | Borders
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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

43 Comments

  1. Scorpio M.
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 16:00:34

    This is my first Meljean Brook read, outside of Here There Be Monsters (which I adored), so I had never experienced MB’s extraordinary world building capabilities & creativity. This phenomenal new world is worthy of high praise.

    But like you, I also did not understand how Mina came to be so beloved by her family, so much so that every single one of them would have died for her? Really? Her mother did such an unspeakable, hateful act towards herself, one so demonstrative and eloquent in its message that you cannot believe that there could be even an ounce of love not to mention unconditional love. That stumped me.

    I loved Rhys’s intensity and little moments of social awkwardness. I believed in his intentions towards Mina but again, I agree with you, we are not in his head often enough. Ironically, I found that I understood Mad Machen (from the novella) better than I did Rhys!

    Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed this book and will be waiting anxiously for The Heart of Steel, these were just a couple of things bugging me. Overall, I would recommend this to anyone not just sci-fi or romance readers. Meljean wrote an amazing book and I hope there will be many more steampunks to come.

  2. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 16:14:43

    @Scorpio M.:

    Yes, Meljean Brook is a tremendous world-builder, and her characters are so endearing and lovable.

    I actually think I could believe, despite what Mina’s mother did to herself, that a woman could come around to loving her own innocent child, even if that child was a product of rape. BUT, I need to see the how of it portrayed, or recounted. A scene in which Mina’s mother or father, or perhaps even Mina herself, explained to Rhys how the change in feeling came about and how that affected Mina and her mother could have been a very effective, not to mention moving, way to get me over this hump.

    Agree too that I would have *loved* to be in Rhys’s head more, especially in some of the early sections.

    Having said that, I too think that the book was amazing in many regards. As I said above, I found it riveting, and didn’t even start to think about these issues until after I had finished reading because I was so captivated while reading it.

    The pacing was terrific, and that’s one area where I feel Meljean Brook has grown tremendously as a writer.

    Also, this is a very memorable book. It’s been a few months since I wrote this review and I actually raised my grade a bit since I wrote it because the story has stayed with me while other books I’ve read around the same time have faded from memory.

    I too hope the series will continue for a long time!

  3. Ridley
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 16:15:49

    Art department totally phoned that cover in. Weak.

    I’m looking forward to reading this so much that I might even break my Agency 5 embargo and buy it tomorrow. I’ll check the library first, though.

  4. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 16:17:31

    @Ridley:

    I'm looking forward to reading this so much that I might even break my Agency 5 embargo and buy it tomorrow.

    Wow, Ridley, coming from you that is some keen anticipation!

  5. Ridley
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 16:22:20

    @Janine:

    I <3 steampunk

  6. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 17:03:45

    @Ridley: You are not the only one. Steampunk is hot right now!

  7. Scorpio M.
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 17:13:54

    @Janine:

    Re: Mina’s mother’s love.

    Exactly! Very true, I should not have said “cannot believe,” it’s more that I found it difficult to believe given what we’ve been told.

    There is so much material to mine with this book that even commenting on your review I can go on & on. :-)

    One thing I wanted to add. I think the racism aspect was handled and written extremely well. What Mina had to go through wasn’t “pc’d” as you would find in most romance novels. I totally appreciated that.

  8. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 17:25:51

    @Scorpio M.: Agree on the racism. The anti-Asian bigotry of the bugger population was spot on IMO, given what they’d suffered at the hands of “the Horde,” even though at times it was discomfiting to read about.

    I wish we knew more about the reasons why “the Horde” infected the English with the nanoagents and enslaved them. I would have liked to know more of their side of the story so that they would seem less villainous, but maybe we will get that in future books. The racism of the English toward Mina served as a counterbalance to this though.

    I think with a book as rich as this, there are always going to be things I want to know more about, and that is probably a sign that the book absorbed me and the story captured my imagination.

    ETA: Feel welcome to comment as much as you like.

  9. Jennie
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 18:00:28

    This looks intriguing. I’ve never read steampunk before – I wonder if this book is a good place to start?

  10. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 18:05:56

    @Jennie: Yes, I think it is a good place to start although the novella, “Here There Be Monsters,” which was the first in this series also rocks. I reviewed it here.

  11. Heather Massey
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 19:40:18

    Thanks for the review! I have this on my TBR pile and am looking forward to it very much. I will return and read the review after I finish the story.

    I thought “Here There Be Monsters” was a fun read and it has some lovely worldbuilding details.

  12. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 19:42:18

    @Heather Massey: You’re welcome. I loved “Here There Be Monsters” and hope you enjoy The Iron Duke.

  13. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 19:45:17

    Kindle version is $9.99. Even this review + steampunk + eyecandy + TEH AHNGST can’t overcome that.

  14. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 19:53:48

    @Moriah Jovan: Maybe you can find it in a library? It’s worth $9.99 to me, but I know not everyone can afford that.

  15. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 20:03:13

    Maybe you can find it in a library?

    That was my next line of attack. :) But I’d rather read E. I’ve just gotten way too spoilt.

  16. Ridley
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 21:09:13

    Well, at least it’s cheaper in ebook than it is in paper. That’s rare enough in these terrible agency times.

  17. J.
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 21:49:33

    It comes out tomorrow! I can’t wait to get it on my nook! Already pre-ordered! :D

  18. Janine
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 21:50:42

    @J.: Your excitement is contagious! Hope you enjoy!

  19. katiebabs
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 22:21:34

    Possibly my best read book this year behind Lord of the White Hell (book 1 & 2) by Ginn Hale.

    I want to adopt Scarsdale.

  20. Janine
    Oct 05, 2010 @ 01:43:14

    @katiebabs: He was great!

    I have Lord of the White Hell 1 & 2 TBR and really need to get to them!

  21. katiebabs
    Oct 05, 2010 @ 10:45:31

    @janine: You must get White Hell book 1 and 2. Amazed by Ginn’s writing and characters.

  22. MarieC
    Oct 05, 2010 @ 10:51:03

    Great review!

    I have been waiting to read this book! M.B. is an amazing author.

  23. Janine
    Oct 05, 2010 @ 11:59:24

    @katiebabs: Thanks.

    @MarieC: Thanks, I hope you enjoy the book. Please feel welcome (you and anyone else here) to return and post your thoughts after you’ve read it.

  24. Maili
    Oct 05, 2010 @ 22:00:41

    @Janine:

    I wish we knew more about the reasons why “the Horde” infected the English with the nanoagents and enslaved them. I would have liked to know more of their side of the story so that they would seem less villainous, but maybe we will get that in future books. The racism of the English toward Mina served as a counterbalance to this though.

    I have to admit: I did speculate – briefly – whether Lady C would become involved with a (former or active) member of the Horde in her story, somehow. I know I know, my brain can be so idiotic sometimes.

  25. Janine
    Oct 06, 2010 @ 01:49:57

    @Maili: No, not idiotic– far from it! Though my theory on Lady C is that she will be paired with her adventurer passenger; the one who was so obviously interested in her and jealous of Scarsdale. It’s been a few months since I read the book and I have forgotten this character’s name but he was awfully cute.

  26. Maili
    Oct 06, 2010 @ 06:16:18

    @Janine: Oh, that’s a good choice. Hm, I have my doubts. He might get a bigger role, but… well, shall we make a bet on this? :D You on that passenger and me on a Horde member?

    (I know zero about the future Iron Seas books, I promise.)

  27. katiebabs
    Oct 06, 2010 @ 07:46:04

    *spoiler ahoy!*

    I thought the travel guide guy was zombie food?

    Ohhh I want Lady C with a Horde member. Talk about all that steamy, hateful passion that will surely happen!

    And the zombies work so well in the story as well. You’d think it wouldn’t, but it really fit and made sense.

  28. Scorpio M.
    Oct 06, 2010 @ 08:57:09

    *Spoilers*

    Oooh, I DO hope Lady C gets together with Archimedes Fox! I hope he’s not really gone. They had such great chemistry.

    I re-read the ending yesterday and loved it even more!! :-)

  29. Janine
    Oct 06, 2010 @ 11:41:19

    @Maili: I’ll take that bet but what shall we bet on? Maybe just on winning?

    @katiebabs: I think he’ll survive the zombies. He was way too appealing to die. Maybe he’ll come out of the experience more edgy and want revenge on Lady Corsair?

    @Scorpio M.: Thanks for supplying his name! You and I can be on team Archimedes then, with Maili and katibabs on team Horde guy. Truthfully, it will be good either way — no matter which team wins out, I’ll be reading the next book.

  30. locked
    Oct 07, 2010 @ 10:57:48

    @Janine: I think it made complete sense that the Horde enslaved the English. In the world of the book Asia is the major colonial power in the world. When they see resources they want, they take them. And they are not above using slave labor to mine those resources. When the West enslaved Africans, they were able to justify it because they didn’t see the Africans as people. Likewise, I believe the Horde sees Westerners as “other” and therefore “not human.” I don’t doubt in the heyday of the American slave trade that we would have used such measures on the Africans we enslaved, had we the tech to do it. Even without the tech, I’m sure African slaves viewed white people in much the same way that the English view the Horde in the novel.

  31. Lorenda
    Oct 07, 2010 @ 12:24:39

    I was a little confused about the Fox/Lady C interaction at the end. A great deal seemed to be made of how exhausted he was, we find out he has daVinci stuff, but we never hear what Lady C/Mina does with it. Did I miss something?

  32. Janine
    Oct 07, 2010 @ 12:26:07

    @locked: I saw it that way too, but I still would have liked to know more about the Horde. For example, were there abolitionists among them, like there were in American society during the era of slavery? I would have liked to see the shades of gray in the Horde, and I hope we do see them in one of the future books.

  33. Janine
    Oct 07, 2010 @ 12:27:59

    @Lorenda: No, I don’t think you missed anything about the Da Vinci stuff. I think we’ll find out more about it in the next book.

  34. The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook – Review
    Nov 29, 2010 @ 15:43:48

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  36. LG
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 15:31:52

    I think I missed the bit where the Horde was mentioned as being from Asia – I spent much of the book wondering if they were human and how people could tell whether someone was half-Horde.

    Even though this book obviously gave me quite a few confused moments, I still enjoyed it and wish I had read it sooner. It’s still too early for the next book (aww, two more months), but I haven’t tried any of her Guardian series yet. Maybe I can line some up for myself before my vacation. :)

  37. Janine
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 16:01:07

    @LG: I read “Here There Be Monsters” (which I loved even more) first, and spent some of that confused about what the Horde was, but I figured it out somewhere in that book, so when I got to The Iron Duke, I was clear on it from the earlier novella.

    Have you read “Here There Be Monsters,” LG? It’s in Burning Up. Brook also has another novella set in the Iron Seas world in Wild and Steamy, but I haven’t read that one yet.

  38. LG
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 16:41:37

    @Janine: I haven’t read either one, but they’re both high on my list now. Wild & Steamy has me more immediately excited, since Brook’s story features Newberry, but maybe I’d be better off reading “Here There Be Monsters” first.

  39. cleo
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 18:23:23

    @LG – I took the Horde to be a variation on the Golden Horde / Mongol Empire, although I’m not sure that was ever said in any of the Iron Seas stories.

    @Janine – I read the story in Wild and Steamy and I loved it. It’s my favorite of her Iron Seas stories so far. It definitely has the best hero – I love Constable Newberry.

    I liked everything about The Iron Duke except the romance – Rhys was way too controlling for my tastes. I liked how Brook challenged conventions by making Victorian England the colonized not the colonizers. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she was attempting to turn another convention on its head by making Rhys start out as an old skool jerky type romance hero, but have him turn out to be a nice guy after all. But I still didn’t like him.

  40. REVIEW: Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook - Dear Author
    Nov 04, 2011 @ 10:46:44

    […] was a bit apprehensive about this book. I guess after reading The Iron Duke, I was sure that this book would be a let down. Archimedes Fox was charming but could I buy him as […]

  41. Fangsforthefantasy
    Nov 04, 2011 @ 14:31:17

    Really? I cannot believe you didn’t mention the constant rape apologism and the outright sexual assault in this book. There is also the issue that Mina fell in love with her rapist. There is also tons of homophobia in this book. The tropes so overwhelm this story that the world she has created becomes invisible.

  42. Janine
    Nov 04, 2011 @ 16:48:09

    @Fangsforthefantasy: I don’t feel there was constant rape apologism in The Iron Duke. I only read it once so I may be forgetting something, but from what I recall there was exactly one scene with a non-consensual sexual act. I realize these things are subjective and not everyone will agree, but I felt the book made it very clear that rape is not romantic and not okay. I have read romances with more rape in them than this one — and even liked some of them.

  43. elizabeth
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 23:24:46

    I’m very late to the party, but I wanted to add that I thought that Mina’s mother took her drastic action so that she could lover her daughter unreservedly and without the constant reminder of her conception which would have been caused by her appearance.

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