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GUEST REVIEW: For the Horde! – The Iron Duke by...

NB: This review from AJH is the fourth in his series of “I’m getting to know the romance genre.” His introduction is here. You can buy the book with these links. 

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The Iron Duke takes place in an alt-history steampunk England, some nine years after the revolution which evicted the Mongol Horde. This had me a little wrong-footed from the get-go because I am pretty sure that I played a game of Crusader Kings II that went exactly the same way (although admittedly there were fewer airships in that version). I found the premise intriguing because I’ve always felt that steampunk as a whole has a very difficult relationship with imperialism and colonialism, and thought that making England a former subject nation, rather than an ascendant imperial power rather nicely sidestepped some of the problematic undertones that you otherwise get in a lot of steampunk fiction. I was also strangely pleased to see the Mongol Empire getting some play. Most of the time the Mongol Hordes (or their fantasy universe equivalents) get treated uncomfortably like orcs – they sweep in out of nowhere, wreck a bunch of shit, and then get vanquished by our heroes. People tend to forget that they actually ran the largest continuous land empire in human history. An empire which was every bit as technologically and socially advanced as any other nation at the time.

The Iron Duke Meljean Brook
Although the Horde are obviously not popular with our protagonists, Brook manages to present a surprisingly complicated picture of their occupation. While we see evidence that the Horde destroyed and despoiled a great many things (including, it seems, most of mainland Europe, which has become a zombie-infested wasteland) we are also reminded that they maintain peace in their lands, that they brought unheard-of technologies to England (many of which are now an intrinsic part of the way the English live their lives). And indeed in this book at least, the enemies of the Horde are more of a threat to the protagonists than the Horde themselves (not least because the heroine is half-Mongolian herself).

We first meet Miss Wilhelmina Wentworth at the Marchioness of Hartington’s Ball. I almost think this is a deliberate bait-and-switch, because three paragraphs in I was fully expecting her to be a rather stock society-lady-who-chafes-against-her-social-position and, while I understand that there’s a reason it’s a classic, I’ve seen that character in a lot of books before and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing it again in this one. Imagine my delight, then, when on page nine it turned out that she was actually a fully paid up detective inspector, and the party was just a social obligation that she hadn’t been able to duck out of.

From the ball we quickly move to a crime scene, which also turns out to be the home of our hero Rhys Trahaern, the Iron Duke of the title (incidentally “the Iron Duke” was the real nickname of the Duke of Wellington, which I think is deliberate parallelism, but I’m not sure – I’m pretty sure Arthur Wellesley was never a pirate). We learn that the body was dropped from an airship, and this leads our heroine on a merry dance involving conspiracies, pirates, zombies, explosions, mutant rats and steam-powered mecha.

I liked the second half of The Iron Duke a lot more than I liked the first, probably because the first half has to do a lot of the heavy lifting. It has to establish the setting, the mystery, the central conflict and of course the romance, and it has to do it in under two hundred pages. This meant that the first few chapters reminded me – in a roundabout way – of mid-era Terry Pratchett. You’ve got a quite serious secondary world adventure story happening, but every so often the action stops for something from a completely different genre. It’s just that whereas in Pratchett it stops for the jokes, here it stops for the sex. Or rather for the establishment of sexual tension. So every so often the narrative will jump into Rhys’ viewpoint and despite the fact that somebody dropped a dead body onto his actual house, he’s mostly obsessing about how to get the heroine into bed. Obsessing in a creep, proprietary way which to me read less as “sexy and roguish” and more as “complete douchenozzle”.

I should probably stress that I did actually like The Iron Duke quite a lot, and to give Rhys his due he does eventually recognise his douchenozzleiness, and make some efforts to become less of a douchenozzle as the book goes on. But at the start of the book, holy crap is the man a pillock. And often a borderline dangerous pillock. He spends a good part of the first half of the book behaving in a way which reads to me as genuinely sexually threatening. Early on he informs the heroine that, if she is ever alone with him that he will kiss her whether she wants him to or not. And then several chapters later, when she winds up alone with him as a result of having tried to save a small child from a rampaging mutant rat monster, he makes good on his threat:

Mina’s [hand] flew to her weapon, found the holster empty. He blocked her grab to his cods by shoving against her, his solid body pushing hers up against the wall. (p. 171)

 This was the bit where Rhys’ behaviour went over a line for me. I get that he finds Mina uniquely irresistible, I get that he is in many ways confused by his feelings, but that whole scene read like straight-up sexual assault to me. Obviously it is a world of not my place to judge what other people get off on, and I do appreciate that within the safe space of fiction the idea of somebody who will do what you want them to despite your apparent objections can be a fantasy (I mean, I’m British, insincere protestations are basically the foundation of our entire society). But from my personal perspective, I just think it’s really important to remember that if a lady asks you to stop doing something to her you should really probably stop doing it. It doesn’t help that Rhys’ internal monologue is so off-kilter. He spends a lot of time thinking about Mina, about how much he wants Mina, about how frustrating it is that there are all these things getting in the way of his being able to bang Mina, but he spends very little time thinking about Mina’s actual wishes or desires.

I’m not sure when, how, or why I finally came around on Rhys Trahearn. I think it might be something to do with the fact that, over the course of the novel, it becomes increasingly clear that the guy is a complete muppet. So my response went from “Mina, stay away from this guy, he could seriously hurt you” to “Mina, I am not sure how this guy manages to put his own trousers on in the morning, but if you want to do him that’s fine by me.” I think the turning point was just after Rhys has – with characteristic douchenozzleiness – told Mina that he will only help her rescue her brother if she sleeps with him, and then he goes back to his friend Scarsdale and has a conversation that goes something like this:

RHYS: “Scarsdale! I’ve solved it! I’ve found a way to get Mina to have sex with me despite the fact that she thinks I’m an amoral sociopath!”

SCARSDALE: “Great! I just hope that you didn’t do something really stupid. Like saying that if she didn’t sleep with you, you’d leave her only brother to be tortured to death by pirates. Because if it was anything like that she’d probably decide that you were a complete douchenozzle.”

RHYS: “Oh.”

SCARSDALE: “You told her that if she didn’t sleep with you, you’d leave her only brother to be tortured to death by pirates, didn’t you?”

RHYS: “A bit?”

I paraphrase slightly for comic effect, but this is more or less how I remember that scene going down. Anyway Scarsdale (who is kind, clever, and would probably be a better match for Mina than our hero were it not for the fact that he’s gay as a box of tinsel) helps Rhys arrange a means to get Mina to accompany them on the next stage of their journey without having to horrifically blackmail her. Once Rhys and Mina finally start getting it on, things start feeling a bit more focused, I think because the romance plot starts to feel like part of the adventure plot rather than a distraction from it. If nothing else this section of the book takes place on a long airship journey on which Rhys and Mina have basically nothing to do except shag, so I was a lot less inclined to wonder why they weren’t more focused on the imminent threat to their entire nation.

Oh, while I’m on the subject of shagging – for some reason Rhys uses the verb “to shag” almost exclusively when he wants to talk about sex. I’m not sure why but this just felt a bit odd to me. Again maybe it’s a British thing but it’s really jarring to hear the word “shagging” dropped into the middle of quite intense alpha-hero romance dialogue. It’s just such casual slang where I come from that I can’t imagine anybody using it to have a serious conversation with somebody they were making a concerted attempt to seduce.

And while I’m on the subject of language, it also took me a little while to get comfortable with the term the book uses for the people who are infected with the nanoagent “bugs” which the Horde used to both control and enhance their slave nations. That term being, of course, “buggers”. This one I almost think had to be deliberate, and I can see the logic of picking something consciously bathetic. And by the time I was halfway through the book I’d pretty much stopped sniggering about it. Almost.

Indeed Brook seems very fond of both bathos and anticlimax. As well as apparently delighting in giving risible names to serious things, she also seems inordinately keen on casually discarding important plot and setting elements. At least one character who I had assumed would recur was instead thrown unceremoniously from an airship (although admittedly we didn’t see a body). Similarly there’s a major plot thread regarding Trahearn and Scarsdale’s pursuit of a vicious sadist by the name of Hunt, and when they finally catch up with the guy, Scarsdale just shoots the fucker in the head without a word on either side. It’s sort of like a George R. R. Martin book, except much, much shorter. And with a more sensible release schedule.

The whole book, in some ways, is a strange mixture of things being very abruptly resolved and things not being resolved at all. The entire climax of the book (the destruction of the [SPOILER], Rhys’ [SPOILER] and subsequent [SPOILER], and the revelation that [SPOILER] is actually led by [SPOILER], Mina being [SPOILER] by a [SPOILER] but then [SPOILER] by [SPOILER]) all unfolds over about twenty-eight pages. By contrast, some things by their nature irresolvable and Brook, to her credit, doesn’t force them into a resolution.

Throughout the book it is made very clear that Mina’s Horde ancestry means she comes in for a metric shit-ton of racist abuse, which is a large part of what puts her off getting together with Rhys in the first place – she knows that putting herself in the public eye will cause a lot of trouble for her and, more importantly, for her family. Rhys is incredibly unsympathetic about this and, in a move which I found even less sympathetic than the sexual assault earlier in the book, Rhys actually calls her a coward for not wanting to put up with it. The book incidentally, seems pretty down on cowardice – we are told in no uncertain terms that the villains are all cowards, and so accusing the heroine of being one as well is a particularly grievous insult (I tend to side much more with John Wilmot on this one, I think all men would be cowards if they durst).

Once again, Rhys’ moment of unbelievable douchebaggery was somehow redeemed in my eyes when Scarsdale laid the smackdown on him again. And once again, I paraphrase slightly for comic effect:

RHYS: “… so then I told her she was being a great big coward, which will certainly get her to see how much I truly love and respect her.”

SCARSDALE: “Oh. You umm … you don’t think that maybe what with being a rich white man who is celebrated as a national hero, you might not be in the best place to judge what her life is like? I mean, y’know, you don’t think you came across as a judgemental, privileged cockmonkey or anything do you?”

RHYS: “Oh. Umm … whoops.”

SCARSDALE: “Maybe you should say sorry?”

RHYS: “I could do that. Or I could … DESTROY ALL RACISM EVERYWHERE. Then she’ll have no reason not to go out with me.”

SCARSDALE: “You could … but … do you not think that would take rather a long time?”

I’d been feeling a vague sense of unease throughout the book, worrying that the whole thing was going to end similarly to Terry Pratchett’s Snuff – that there was going to be One Big Dramatic Event that would teach everybody that Racism Was Wrong and everything would be happy and Mina could shack up with Rhys without anybody making jokes about him still sticking it to the Horde. It doesn’t go down like that. Mina does get a large public triumph which puts her in the public eye in a very positive way, and that does mean that she gets less abuse than she used to, but there’s no sense that everything has been fixed. Basically it seems like she gets a public reputation as being “one of the good ones” or possibly “not like the rest of them” – it’s not that her society stops being endemically racist, just that she’s got into the sort of position where people will say “oh but I don’t mean you!” after they say something horrendously offensive.

Perhaps one of the things that is most interesting about The Iron Duke as a whole is the way the setting and the characters highlight the diversity and variety of reactions to abuse and trauma. Rhys has a traumatic childhood, and responds by cutting himself off from the world and descending into what one of his few friends calls “selfish anarchism”. England suffers under the Horde and responds with various kinds of rage and denial. Scarsdale is tormented by Hunt and responds with a good old-fashioned vengeance crusade (and one which seems to bring him genuine closure). Mina suffers both under the Horde and later in the backlash after the revolution, and responds by keeping her head down and throwing herself into her work. And the book seems to treat all of these responses as valid and, in some ways, understandable. It’s very easy to be prescriptive about this sort of thing, to imagine that there is exactly one correct, healthy way to respond to traumatic events and that anything else is wrong and destructive, but Brook doesn’t take that path, and the book is stronger for it.

Everything I learned about life and love as a result of reading The Iron Duke: Zombies are an essential part of any romantic getaway. Taking somebody’s glove off is still bizarrely erotic. Running a pirate ship puts a crimp on your love life. Always listen to your sidekick’s advice, because he is much cooler than you are.

Guest Reviewer

48 Comments

  1. kamlin
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:22:14

    I absolutely loved this book.
    My introduction to steampunk….

  2. Anthea Lawson
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:27:53

    Another fabulous review! I’m so enjoying reading your take on the romance genre, especially the subtextual things that readers in the genre tend to take for granted/not think about that much.

    And the WoW reference had me laughing – I read this during an intensive gaming period in my life, and constantly had to remind myself that Brook meant the *other* Horde… That said, I really loved The Iron Duke, and her subsequent steampunk titles. (moar, I want moar)

    I look forward to your next review!

  3. hapax
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:30:59

    Loved Brooks’ writing style, loved this world, loved the heroine, loved-loved-loved the secondary characters …
    … wanted to drop the “hero” into an exploding volcano.

    The subsequent books in the series are a VAST improvement in the latter respect, including the return of a certain character unceremoniously dumped in this one.

  4. cleo
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:56:35

    My new favorite part of friday – reading your review over my lunch. I agree about Rhys. I had trouble getting past his assulting Mina and his general dickishness. I’m willing to give MB the benefit of the doubt and assume that she deliberately was playing with alpha male tropes the same way she played with British imperialism, but I still really don’t like Rhys. I did like that Min knocked him out.

    I agree with Hapax – the heroes are better in the other books. Riveted is my all time favorite of the Iron Seas books, followed by the novella The Blushing Bounder. ETA – Riveted is her most commplete book in terms of wrapping up most of theplot points in a satisfying way, imo.

  5. frannie
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:56:44

    Fabulous review! Hope to see more from AJH and wish him well on his journey through romanceland.

  6. Aisha
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:02:42

    Thank you so much for this review. I lol’d a few times reading it and really enjoyed the fill-in-the-blanks spoiler sentence. Ms Brook is one of the few writers I trust and am willing to make leaps of logic for. So while I agree that Rhys is a total douche (and ag shame, poor muppets), his backstory and the generalised social and emotional dysfunction that characterised life for the majority of people under Horde imperial rule and that continued in the post-revolution period, made me more forgiving than I might have been of a similar character in another authors hands.

    [ETA] I forgot to add – “in this book at least, the enemies of the Horde are more of a threat to the protagonists than the Horde themselves” – I’m not sure that they are presented as the enemy of the Horde, at least not directly. I’ve interpreted it as more sinister in some ways than that – a kind of master plan to purify the human race as a whole from the ‘infection’, which, yes, was caused initially by the Horde, but is now (in the series timeline :) a choice people make.

    Also I think the next book is going to be about a Horde smuggler, which should serve to add even more complexity to an already rich world.

  7. Ridley
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:08:39

    You’ve got a quite serious secondary world adventure story happening, but every so often the action stops for something from a completely different genre. It’s just that whereas in Pratchett it stops for the jokes, here it stops for the sex.

    QFT to this.

    Admittedly I don’t read much romance in the speculative fiction sub-genres, but I’ve never read a book where the action and the romance were stitched together as jarringly as they were in this one. In fact, I would have liked the book a lot more if the romance between Rhys and Mina never happened. I loved the world-building and action plot, and I loved the individual characters, but I never bought into the romance. It was forced and it was distracting. Every time the book cut to the romance scenes, I endured through them, annoyed that I was taken from the action.

    I loved this book, but it’s a shitty romance.

  8. Christine
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:20:48

    @Ridley: Who said “I loved this book, but it’s a shitty romance. ” It’s an interesting and well written book but there is very little “romantic” about it. I’ve seen lots of reviews from romance readers on various boards who have basically said it isn’t a “romance” to them. I enjoyed it very much but I could see how some romance readers would not like it if they were expecting more romance less adventure. My favorite of Brook’s Steampunk work is “Here Be Dragons” a novella that sets up the Iron Seas series and IMHO one of the best novellas I have read. (I have not read Riveted yet which many people loved and recommend.)

    If I had to recommend a Steampunk romance to a first time reader I would be more inclined to recommend “Kiss Of Steel” by Bec McMaster which is much more evenly split between the romance and world building.

  9. Ridley
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:31:04

    @Christine: It wasn’t that I expected or even wanted more romance relative to the action, it was that the romance didn’t enhance or even work with the larger plot. The romance wasn’t true to the characters, so I felt jerked around. The characters were different people in the action scenes than they were in the romance ones, and not in a “seeing a different side of someone in private” sort of way.

  10. AJH
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:44:59

    @kamlin:

    Yeah, I really enjoyed it too and I’m usually pretty dubious about steampunk. In fact, now I think about it, the last steampunk thing I read was probably Cassie Clare’s Clockwork Prince. *slinks away*

    @Anthea Lawson:

    I’m so glad somebody out there picked up the WoW reference – it was completely nerdy of me but I couldn’t resist. I’ve been playing Crusader Kings more recently than I’ve been playing WoW so I actually did think Genghis Khan before Garrosh Hellscream – but a couple of years ago it would have been touch and go ;)

    I’m really happy you’re enjoying the reviews – I’m really enjoying writing them :)

    @hapax:

    Wow, not just a volcano, but an exploding volcano. That’s some serious commitment :)
    I’ve heard that Rhys is a bit of an outlier douchenozzle-wise – lots of people suggests I should start with Riveted but I’m a bit anal about starting at the beginning of stuff.
    I did really enjoy the book though – as you say the style and the world-building and everybody who wasn’t Rhys are pretty much awesome – so I’m going to add Brook to my ridiculous Fibonacci series of authors I need to read all of.

    @cleo:

    Awww, thank you :) You might be right that Brook was playing with tropes when it came to Rhys but I’m not familiar enough with them to be able to follow the deconstruction. I definitely got the sense that the book itself was aware that a lot of his behaviour is shitty – which was sort of reassuring – but it was still hard to actually like the guy. And he does sort of get there in the end. I think. Kind of. Maybe.

    I’ve heard really good things about Riveted – and just to be totally shallow about it, it’s got a great cover.

    @frannie:

    Thank you – the journey’s been great so far :)

    @Aisha:

    Really glad you enjoyed the review – after THATH, I needed something with less trauma and more zombies. The Iron Duke isn’t precisely light-hearted but it’s very very different.
    I will say this for Rhys: he’s a well contextualised douche. I did understand WHY he was behaving the way he was behaving but I still spent half the book going “no, that’s still just being a dickhead.” It’s certainly not a criticism of Brook’s writing or her portrayal of the character, I just really didn’t like the guy at first and I only really came round because I decide he was too inept to do anybody any damage. To be honest, from what I’ve read so far, it might just be that I don’t get on very well with alpha-types – but that could change.

    I think you’re right that The Villains TM are more than just anti-Horde extremists. There’s clearly a big old conspiracy going on which I wasn’t expecting to be resolved in the first book. Having read exactly one volume of the series, however, I got the impression that opposing The Horde, or the threat of The Horde, was at least part of their agenda, but I could be totally wrong.

    I’m really interested to hear that there’s going to be a book with a Horde protagonist. I spent a large part of the book wanting to know what life inside the Horde actually looked like.

    @Ridley:

    I’m really glad it wasn’t just me – I was sort of afraid I was a shitty romance reader. I did keep thinking ‘wow, these scenes are really getting in the way and don’t add much to the overall plot’ but I couldn’t tell if that was just because I was coming at it from a fantasy reader background. Like you, I loved pretty much everything except the romance bits. I thought it got better in the second half but I think you’re right, I would have preferred it with more zombies and less kissing. And that makes me sound like the kid at the beginning of The Princess Bride movie.

  11. Christine
    May 03, 2013 @ 13:54:56

    @Ridley: I understood what you meant and didn’t mean to imply you were looking for more romance etc. in it. I was just repeating a commonly read complaint regarding it. I agree that the romance was the weaker part of the book. They didn’t work for me as a couple but I did enjoy the book. I personally would not recommend it as a “romance” to someone. I would recommend it to someone who liked Steampunk or adventure novels primarily. I haven’t read it in a while but I just recall the couple as not seeming to like each other all that much. At least that is my personal recollection of it.

  12. leslie
    May 03, 2013 @ 14:18:36

    Another great review! I haven’t read The Iron Duke or anything by Meljean Brook, but now I’m interested, so thanks.

  13. Meri
    May 03, 2013 @ 15:19:46

    I read The Iron Duke, but I was kind of meh about it. I think the problem for me was that there were too many genres mixed together – steampunk, alt history, romance (and yes, the zombies thrown in for good measure), and I agree with Ridley that the romance was the least effective part of it.

  14. Tabs
    May 03, 2013 @ 15:48:56

    Yeah, I’ve always thought that the romance in The Iron Duke was it’s weakest element. Rhys’s alpha-douche highhandedness drove me nuts. There are even punishing kisses!

    I love the other books in the series though.

    Also, I second the recomendation for the “Here Be Monsters” novella (currently only available via an anthology). It’s a great play on the “dominating pirate and his helpless prisoner” scenario but Mad Manchen is anything but what he appears to be and Ivy the blacksmith is nobody’s simpering captive. It’s my favorite novella ever.

  15. Malin
    May 03, 2013 @ 16:15:11

    Wonderful reviews. The very interesting character dropped unceremoniously from the airship into a horde of zombies is the supremely awesome and pretty much “diametrically opposite to Rhys in every way” hero of the second book in this series, Heart of Steel, which is my favourite so far. It’s also much more of an adventure romp, and has a lot less sex. The couple don’t even kiss until over two thirds of the way through the story. The third book, Riveted is also excellent, and neither of the heroes in these books are anywhere near as Alpha and douchenozzly as Rhys. You should absolutely check them out – because a lot of the heavy lifting with the world building is taken care of in The Iron Duke, they’re also quite a lot less expositiony.

  16. AJH
    May 03, 2013 @ 16:46:59

    @leslie:

    Really glad you enjoyed it – general recommendations are to start with Riveted rather than The Iron Duke because the hero is less of a dong but I guess it depends what you’re into and if you mind starting a series midway through.

    @Meri:

    I’m actually well into genre mashup stuff. I’d even go so far as to say that I think steampunk is an inherently mashuppy (yes that’s a word) genre. Sort of by definition it contains elements of sci-fi, alt history and fantasy. I don’t necessarily think romance is the straw that breaks the camel’s back but I agree that in this case it was badly integrated and sort of got in the way of the action. It might also be a case of first book syndrome since there’s a lot of world building and setup to do, so everything else felt a bit thin.

    @Tabs:

    That does sound amazing actually – I love pirates. I just did some cursory Googling and I can’t seem to find out what anthology it’s in, even on Brook’s website. Err – how do get hold of this thing?

    I did sort of come round on Rhys by the end of The Iron Duke, but I don’t know if I just got Stockholm syndrome.

    @Malin:

    Omg, really?! I KNEW something was up when there wasn’t a body. Okay, I’m really excited now. I desperately need to read more of this series but I’m drowning in all the books I want to read.

    I don’t think it was the *amount* of sex that was the problem, just the way it was contextualised. It just felt like the action kept pausing to say “and we’ll have some sexy things now.” I’m glad to hear the balance and the integration works better in the later volumes.

  17. Mary
    May 03, 2013 @ 16:51:13

    I really like this book…and a lot of the issues I had with it were addressed in the novella “The Invisible City” which is a sequel and shows some of their problems but also gives a better sense of their romance.
    I do like Riveted, but my favorite in the Iron Seas is Heart of Steel. To me, Yasmeen is the best romance heroine I’ve read recently, and I love Archimedes. The power dynamic of their relationship is so wonderful and ahhh it’s perfect!
    That has to be one of my favorite things about Meljean Brook, in both this and the Guardian series. I always feel like her Heros and heroines actually like each other, respect each other, and find a way to make their relationship equal. Even in the Iron Duke, by the end Mina and Rhys have a pretty even relationship. He’s a alpha, but so is she and he respects that. I dunno, I think Brook does gender roles really really well.

  18. pamelia
    May 03, 2013 @ 16:56:43

    “Iron Duke” worked as a romance for me, but I have a major thing for heroes of the douchenozzle variety. I love Anne Stuart’s books, “Lothaire” by Kressley Cole has one of my favorite ever heroes (and he spends about 2/3 of the book determined to kill the heroine and not in a euphemistic way), and don’t even get me started on Jericho Barrons in Karen Marie Moning’s Fae books!
    What I like about these kind of “heroes” is those moments of wonder they have when they start coming around. I guess I see them as kind of “unreliable narrator” types in that they buy into their own badness and sometimes they don’t even realize they’ve come around. I find it rather charming. That’s just me though — I know many readers find these guys awful. :)

  19. cleo
    May 03, 2013 @ 17:14:11

    @AJH: Here There be Monsters is in the anthology Burning Up – http://www.amazon.com/Burning-Up-Berkley-Sensation-ebook/dp/B003YFIWOY/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1 It looks like it will be available as a separate novella in October, but the whole anthology is quite good – I enjoyed all 4 stories, which is unusual for me when it comes to anthologies.

  20. CD
    May 03, 2013 @ 17:17:54

    “Zombies are an essential part of any romantic getaway.”
    Word. Although now I’m thinking of romances with zombies and dragons. Or maybe zombie dragons. Or dragons who can shapeshift into zombies and become dashing romantic leads. I’d definitely read THAT book…

    It’s been a long time, but isn’t this what happens?
    The entire climax of the book (the destruction of the [talking penguin], Rhys’ [transgender issues] and subsequent [sex change], and the revelation that the [Met police] is actually led by [Garrosh Hellscream], Mina being [tied up with daffodils] by a [zombiefied dragon] but then [turning into an angel] by [eating its brains]) all unfolds over about twenty-eight pages.

    And “buggers”? Snigger. Every single time.

    Night night!

  21. CD
    May 03, 2013 @ 17:30:45

    Oh, on the book – definitely second HERE BE DRAGONS and RIVETED. However, HERE BE DRAGONS will take you 30 mins to read and has pirates. Pirates, I say! I would also recommend Brook’s GUARDIAN series starting with DEMON ANGEL (ignore the shitty shitty cover) – I prefer it to the IRON SEAS series: it’s meaty enough to really sink your teeth into…

  22. Aisha
    May 03, 2013 @ 17:41:55

    @CD: OMG :o That is exactly what happens! I hope you’re proud, now that you’ve gone and spoilt it for everyone :)

    @AJH: no worries, alpha-hole heroes are hard to take, especially, I’d imagine, if you were ingesting a steady diet of them … er, moving on, honestly my memory is frequently sieve-like so you very well may be right about the Villains and their nefarious intentions towards the Horde.
    Oh, and the next book in the series, Yasmeen and Archimedes’s (shit, where does the apostrophe go?), offers some insight into at least part of Horde culture (I won’t say why because it may verge on spoiler territory – and we’ve had enough of that with CD :).

    ETA – just saw your last comment CD, and while I am reserving judgement on whether I think one series is better than the other, especially since the Iron Seas world is still being established, I agree with everything else you say.

  23. Jordan R.
    May 03, 2013 @ 17:51:00

    Okay, I know I’m in the minority here, but I liked The Iron Duke much more than the second novel in the series. I guess I have a thing for douchenozzles that *eventually* have a marshmallow center. The prequel novella about Ivy and Mad Machen is lovely and romantic and awesome as well! I’m glad you like the world building – I would definitely recommend the rest of the series both for plot and romance. The little epilogue novellas the author has written are a nice way to revisit main characters from previous stories.

  24. pamelia
    May 03, 2013 @ 18:11:57

    @ Jordan R. — I also loved “Iron Duke” and didn’t much care for the second book (I had to force myself to finish it), but “Riveted” was pretty awesome (in case you haven’t read it yet).

  25. cleo
    May 03, 2013 @ 18:28:36

    @CD:Hah! All spoilers should be mad-libbed

  26. MarieC
    May 03, 2013 @ 19:43:00

    Ah, another great review! I loved this book and have all the subsequent books and novellas.

    I agree with Ridley about the overall lack of romance in this book, but the others in the series more than made up for it. I kind of felt that this book had the the heavy burden of setting up the world and MB did an awesome job.

    BTW, the romance (and Rhys) are much better in “Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City”.

  27. pamela1740
    May 03, 2013 @ 20:42:23

    I wanted to like Rhys so much more than I actually could! The rest of the novel is just so impressive and well-wrought, it made me cranky that I couldn’t root for the romance. That said, I am still planning to read the rest of the Iron Seas adventures, and I love the audacity of MB’s intricate steampunk vision.

  28. Elyssa Patrick
    May 03, 2013 @ 22:50:20

    I love this book. My favorite scene–hands down–is when the h/h first meet and he helps her remove her glove. God, that is the damn sexiest and hottest scene, and so full of tension and what-not. I’ve read that scene so many times to see how she did it; my conclusion is that Meljean Brook is a freaking genius.

  29. Kaetrin
    May 04, 2013 @ 00:53:58

    I enjoyed the Iron Duke quite a bit once I got over my inherent caution about steampunk ( which happened before I opened the book). I liked Rhys – I thought he was very clumsy and clueless but he was honest and he did change so that worked for me.

  30. Liz H.
    May 04, 2013 @ 03:43:17

    You pretty much pegged my complaints about the book. Rhys was a an asshole, it didn’t make sense that he paid almost no attention to the random dead body (it’s always been my assumption that to succeed at the level he did attention to detail is an important characteristic, but maybe not), and he got just about every interaction between himself and Mina wrong. The romance scenes jarred with the rest of the book, and even out of context of the rest of the book, they didn’t work well and I didn’t buy the connection. That said, I loved the world building and the adventure.
    The prequel novella (Here There Be Monsters), involving different characters, is great as a more even mix of romance/steampunk, and in the follow up novella (Invisible City), with Mina and Rhys, their relationship is better balanced. I’ve got similar mixed feelings about the other novels in the series, but the novellas are continually fantastic.

  31. AJH
    May 04, 2013 @ 04:34:27

    @Mary:

    I’m slightly torn about the novella thing. Of course, I’d be more happy to spend more time with these people in this world but, at the same time, I sort of feel on principle a text should be self-sustaining, unless it’s clearly part of continued series. But I do appreciate that Brook had a lot to do in writing a good adventure story and setting up an interesting world, so I can see why she ran out of space. I think you’re right, though, that their relationship does balance out by the end, and I really like that about it.

    It’s not my place to make sweeping generalisations about gender issues but it seemed to me from the first book that Brook does provide an interesting range of characters of both sexes. I thought Yasmeen was great and I’m really looking forward to reading her book. I’m really not sure how it’s going to open though “Uh, sorry I threw you off that airship, dude.”

    @pamelia:

    I can totally see on an abstract level why these sort of heroes might to appeal to someone who, well, isn’t me. I think one of the things we can draw from the enduring popularity of Pride & Prejudice (other than the fact it’s awesome) is that one of the most romantic things ever is change – particularly self-catalysed change. And the thing about dubious or alphatastic heroes (and I’m speculating from ignorance, as usual) is that they sort of embody this principle as they limp from being a dick to, err, not being a dick. Redemption arcs are just cool in general.

    Although I did come round on the guy, I think the main thing that bothered me about Rhys was not the alphaness (not thrilled about the sexual assault though) so much as his kind of persistent low-key disregard for Mina’s wishes. I think it contributed to the sense that some other commenters seem to have shared that they just didn’t *like* each other very much.

    @cleo:

    Thanks Cleo … I, uh, maybe have bought that now. I saw Nalini Singh was involved as well so I was basically doomed from the outset.

    @CD:

    Or dragons who can shapeshift into zombies and become dashing romantic leads. I’d definitely read THAT book…

    Word, right back atcha.

    And, yes, yes that’s EXACTLY what happened. How dare you spoil the book for other commenters. I’m going to tell Jane.

    I’ve just bought HERE BE DRAGONS because I have no self-control.

    Given the Guardian series is a million books long and I already have a million books to read (including, *cough* the entire IRON SEAS series) I may, err, put it near the bottom of the pile while I still have the strength to do so. But, assuming I’m still alive, I’ll definitely take a look at it … at … some … point.

    @Aisha

    As I was saying above, I can see why people like them, and I think the fact that Rhys is just clueless a lot of the time rather than malevolent or coming at it from a space of ‘I totally know what’s better for you than do you’ is probably quite interesting. Except, y’know, I wasn’t mad keen on the dude.

    I’m really glad we get to see more Horde stuff in book 2.

    @Jordan R.:

    From what I’ve seen, I really don’t think you’re alone in that. I think Rhys is a bit like marmite, you either love him or hate him (and I’ve just realised that reference probably won’t work for an international audience). I did like watching him gradually evolve into a less douchenozzley person and I think, for me, that arc might have come across better if there’d been a bit more space for it among the explosions and zombies.

    I’m normally a bit dubious about epilogue things – although I might just bear the scars from Harry Potter. On the other hand, I would like to see more of Rhys and Mina, especially now he’s grown as a marshmallow ;)

    @MarieC:

    I’m not generally a big fan of steampunk, so the fact I’m totally into this series just goes to show how well Brook managed to set everything up. I’m definitely interested in seeing how the world develops over the course of the series, and I’m glad there’s some stuff coming up that shows the Horde perspective as well. Eeeee.

    Really glad you enjoyed the review :)

  32. AJH
    May 04, 2013 @ 09:12:56

    @pamela1740:

    I think I know what you mean. By the time Rhys showed up I was already pretty much sold on the book so I really wanted it to work on all levels, but I never got quite got my head around his behaviour. But I’ll definitely check out the rest of the series – from what people have said it sounds like the romances are generally better integrated. I hope you enjoy them :)

    @Elyssa Patrick:

    The glove scene is lovely – it reminded me a lot of Lord of Scoundrels which also has a smokin’ hot glove scene (I think these books are giving me some kind of glove fetish).

    Unfortunately, for me, that initial spark never quite followed through the rest of the romance. I’m not sure but I think it tried to do too much too soon. It kind of goes from interesting spark to “I must possess this person” and that gave me a touch of emotional whiplash.

    @Kaetrin:

    I, too, have inherent steampunk caution but Brook completely won me over. I definitely think clumsy and clueless is the best way to read Rhys, and his occasionally bizarre behaviour, and by the end of the book I was finding it almost sweet. I can see how that arc could be really satisfying but it just didn’t quite work for me.

    @Liz H.:

    Yes, Rhys’s apparent lack of concern about the dead body really threw me. I know Mina is hot, but priorities dude. And, like you say, the book very clearly presents him as being the sort of person who deals with this sort of thing and it’s not like he’s the kind of guy who delegates (like when he gets his ship back, he doesn’t sleep because between banging Mina and personally overseeing everything, he has literally no time). I suppose, in some ways, it’s nice that being with Mina encourages him to let go a bit more but you’d think when she first shows up, he’d be more concerned about the corpse.

    I can certainly see how their relationship could be better balanced after the book finished – but I’d quite like to have believed in it a bit more at the time.

  33. cleo
    May 04, 2013 @ 19:28:20

    @AJH: Well, since my last recommendation went so well, let me recommend another anthology, Wild & Steamy. MB’s contribution, The Blushing Bounder, is a prequel to The Iron Duke and tells Constable Newberry’s story and how he came to assist Mina. It’s quite sweet and in a completely different tone than TID. There’s a mystery plot that doesn’t have a completely satisfactory conclusion, but I found the romance to be so satisfying that it took me awhile to even notice that the mystery sort fizzled out.

  34. CD
    May 04, 2013 @ 19:32:11

    @AJH:

    OK, am a bit pissed but the GUARDIAN series is fucking fabulous. I have esrious fantasies involving the heroes and chocolate, and have girl crushes on all the heroines. And Hugh is just fucking amazing…

  35. leslie
    May 05, 2013 @ 20:26:41

    @AJH:
    Well…..I just finished this crazy book……everything you said in your review is true.
    The “bugger” and “shagging” usage was just weird and kinda stupid IMHO. “Oh I’ll be shagging you forever” who says that kind of shit? Way too casual. And what about the bad guys wanting to wipe out the “buggers”? Intentional mockery? I don’t get it. I think if I were ever to meet Meljean Brook I would ask “WHY?”. The “romance/sex scenes also took me out of the story and it really bugged me even though I was prepared for it. I did love the action, but felt a little let down by the ending(s). CD’s mad-libbed spoilers were almost better than the real thing. LOL.
    I will read Heart of Steel and Riveted though……no reason not to since they are free from my local library.

    So Friday…. what’s next?:)

  36. hilly
    May 06, 2013 @ 01:38:43

    Good review; your humour adds to my enjoyment of this book! Sometimes the flaws – even in parody – are the quirks that make a work of art resonate.

    Do read Here Be Dragons, now that you own it, and give yourself a break in your heavy reading commitments by reviewing the novella some week, instead of a full length book. ;-)

    FWIW, HBD was my first introduction to M.Brook, and was so impressed by it that I then sought out The Iron Duke.

    I’m also really enjoying your reviews as a whole. Much obliged to you for taking the time and making the effort. You are a very talented writer!

  37. AJH
    May 06, 2013 @ 05:50:17

    @cleo:

    Oh dear God, you’re trying to kill me, bankrupt me or both :) Also I can’t help but feel The Blushing Bounder would make an excellent name for a pub…

    *coughs*

    *buys*

    @CD:

    *laughs* I do love waking up on a Sunday morning to your wine-soaked commentaries ;) I’ve been poking around on Brook’s website and the series does look pretty cool but it’s, like, a meeeeeelion books long and I’ll die.

    @leslie:

    Sorry to be really crude but, for me, that line works a lot better if it’s ‘fucking’ not ‘shagging’. My take on it was that Brook was trying to sound distinctly British but writing in a dialect you’re not familiar with is very very hard. Divided by a common language and all that. And I have no idea what was going on with ‘buggers’.

    I did quite like the no-nonsense way Brook dispensed with some of her plot elements – like when they just shoot guy for example – but the actual resolution to the main plot felt very rushed to me. I’m glad you read the book and enjoyed it, though – I think, romancing aside, most of what it does it does really really well. I’m definitely interested in the rest of the series – maybe we can derail a later review on the subject ;)

    Coming up next, I think, is Bet Me, then For My Lady’s Heart (woo) and then Painted Faces.

    I’ve got The Smoke Thief and The Black Wossname Thingyhood in the pipeline too.

    @hilly:

    Thank you, I’m really glad you enjoyed the review. It’s really not much of an effort to do something you enjoy.

    I think books are sort of like people, you know, with their great qualities and their endearing little flaws to keep things interesting ;) Although obviously I don’t give my friends to charity shops when I finish with them…

    Depending on time and sanity, I may review the whole anthology since I bought the thing and Nalini Singh’s in there so win :)

  38. MrsJoseph
    May 06, 2013 @ 13:42:31

    This is almost exactly how I felt, too! Rhys was a complete douche and had total rapetastic tendencies. I loved the worldbuilding and the entire action story-line but the romance was…(as Ridley put it) pretty shitty. I felt it would have been a great straight steampunk fantasy but the romance parts weren’t there for me. Rhys and his shitty actions put me off the rest of the series. Then I happened to read an anthology that had one of MB’s “Iron” shorts in it. Loved it so I’ll proceed (cautiously) with the rest of the series.

  39. Ridley
    May 06, 2013 @ 15:19:59

    @AJH: Her use of “buggers” is interesting. In American English, it refers to small, annoying things. It’s almost always “little buggers.”

    So, it makes sense from that angle… but then she uses “shag,” which I’ve never heard any American say outside of quoting Austin Powers. I can’t decide what she was going for.

  40. CD
    May 06, 2013 @ 16:19:08

    @AJH:

    I’m rather embarrassed about the, er, eloquence of my finely reasoned argument above. I’m very much hoping that Laura Kinsale (or even Meljean Brook [gulp]) was not reading… Despite all evidence to the contrary, I want to state once and for all that I am NOT a pisshead – it’s your bloody fault for having your reviews go up on a Friday evening. And they were these really really dangerous rum cocktails…

    Well, your decisions are your decisions. Just know that I’ve lost all respect for you. You are henceforth condemned to read nothing but Cassie Edwards, Kathleen Woodiwess, Beatrice Small and ALL of the Black Dagger Thingy series – yes, I means ALL TWELVE BOOKS. Back to back.

    @AJH:
    @Ridley:

    Well, I too sniggered a lot at every use of “buggers” and “bounder” but I got used to it in the end. However, “shag” really struck a discordant note every time it was used – I think it’s similar to the American use of “hook up” – very casual and almost comedically so.

    I could forgive these usages in the IRON SEAS world due to it being an alternative universe and all. However, I’ve seen strange usage of British swearwords all over the place – I remember having to give up on Liz Carlyle simply because she kept having her aristocratic heroes say “arse” every other sentence. Note: while “arse” does technically mean posterior, it is NOT the equivalent of the American “ass”. It is vulgar in both senses of the word: it is not a word you use not use in front of children or grandparents; and, more importantly, it is a class indicator, although much less so now. Same with “bloody”, for that matter. Although I’m definitely no expert on historical swearwords and will probably be proved incorrect, I would have expected 19th aristocrats to be more likely to use “f**k” or “c**k/”c**t” rather than “arse” or “bloody”.

    BTW, the intensity of swearwords is always very difficult to gauge as they evolve a lot and my generation tend to use them fairly freely, but my thought was that “bugger” was also a word that you do not use in front of granny….

  41. AJH
    May 06, 2013 @ 16:52:00

    @MrsJoseph:

    I did kind of come round on Rhys but it was touch and go for a long time. Weirdly, I think Scarsdale saved him for me, by making him face up to some of his douchiness, but I could personally do with him being a bit less rapey.

    For what’s it worth, I haven’t read them yet but from everything people have told me – and I haven’t been guided wrong yet – the later books resolve quite a lot of those problems. I mean, establishing a whole world AND having a romance AND having an adventure story is a hell of a lot to do in 300 pages – so I suspect now the world is semi-established there’s likely to be a better balance. Also apparently the heroes are much less … ah … difficult ;)

    @Ridley:

    Ahhh, thank you. That makes a lot more sense. It’s sort of got that meaning in British English as well, it’s just kind of eclipsed by the, uh, sodomy interpretation.

    @CD:

    Don’t apologise, own your pissheadedness ;) Also I’m really not one to talk – I tend to leave my comments in, or immediately after, the pub. Which probably explains a lot, now I think about it.

    Also I’ve read about 30% of The Black Wossname Thingyhood and, errr, yeah, please don’t condemn me to the rest of the series. I’ll read The Guardian series instead, I promise. Do it to Julia, do it to Julia!

    Langauge is … difficult, he says sagely. I think it’s much harder than we realise to track variation across continents and also within regions, and across historical usage. I was really jarred by ‘jackass’ in Lord of Scoundrels but this turned out to have a degree of context behind it so it’s just genuinely impossible to work get a read on what’s plausible. So I guess it all comes to personal taste and experience really. Also England is really weird (err … as you know because I’m guessing from your comments you live here) in that class indicators flatten out at the top and the bottom and go crazy in the middle. So ‘what’ is perfectly acceptable for the lower and upper classes and only the middle classes say ‘pardon’. And I suspect, actually (based on no real evidence), arse and bloody might be the same. I mean, still not acceptable for Lord Wanginton-Thrustfully to mention his arse in front of the Dowager Duchess of Sneeve but perhaps the sort of thing he might say in private?

  42. hilly
    May 06, 2013 @ 17:46:24

    @AJH:

    “For My Lady’s Heart”? That’s your L.Kinsale starter book? Hmmm. It’s far from her strongest book and I doubt that it’s the best representative of her writing abilities. Are you attempting it merely because it’s a medieval? Because, as much as I love most of her other books, I found this one hard going, with insufficient return on investment. (And that’s *aside* from the archaic language!) I can think of four or five other titles that I’d recommend to you above FMLH as an introduction to this author. Are you firmly set on FMLH?

  43. I can answer that! – Using “bugger” and “shag” in The Iron Seas
    May 06, 2013 @ 21:28:04

    […] there’s a review of The Iron Duke up at Dear Author (it’s a fun review, you should read it) and between the review and the comments, I realized I […]

  44. Ya
    May 06, 2013 @ 22:32:05

    FYI, Here Be Dragons is actually Here There Be Monsters.

  45. pamela1740
    May 07, 2013 @ 05:58:14

    Also, HERE BE DRAGONS is a great book by Sharon Kay Penman. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/77449.Here_be_Dragons

  46. AJH
    May 07, 2013 @ 10:24:58

    Sorry for the title related confusion! It probably goes some way to explaining why I couldn’t find the thing on Brook’s website :)

    @hilly:

    Well, I’m running a few weeks ahead with my reading so the reviewing schedule isn’t unmanageably intense so I’ve actually already read FMLH already. I think the three people particularly recommended were For My Lady’s Heart, Flowers from the Storm and Prince of Midnight (although that one might have been primarily because of the hilarious belt-nipple cover). I can’t remember why I went for FMLH over the others but a few people have subsequently told me I HAVE to read Flowers and, to be honest, I really want to – but I’m trying to get some way into my list before I double back on authors. I’ve always been pretty obsessed with books that have their own language – A Clockwork Orange I love to pieces (a strange book to love, I know, but I really do) so it wasn’t an insane recommendation for me. I will say I found it very dense, and very intricate, but I wasn’t unsatisfied by it – far from it actually. I think it’s quite emotionally difficult in some ways because it’s so very grounded in its time and place, but I was genuinely deeply invested in the whole thing. Though I haven’t read any other of Kinsale’s books (yet!) so it might suffer in comparison.

    Out of curiosity, if it’s not a pain to answer, which would you have recommended?

  47. hilly
    May 09, 2013 @ 03:11:00

    @AJH:

    Out of curiosity, if it’s not a pain to answer, which would you have recommended?

    Certainly! In order, I’d recommend:
    1. Flowers From the Storm
    2. Prince of Midnight
    3. Seize the Fire
    4. The Shadow and the Star

    All have preposterous elements to them, but the characters are multi-layered and intense, the relationships are nuanced and complex, the historical and geographic references are just grounded enough to give the books an epic feel.

    I like more than these four, but that’s my short list. The heroes are deeply flawed, but so are the heroines. Plenty of ‘tortured’ psyches throughout. ;-)

    Thanks for responding to my concern. I’m just really relieved that you, having already read FMLH, haven’t been put off of L.Kinsale’s books. Great! If you can read some of the others at a later date, I recommend that you work your way through her backlist, because the premise of each of her books is original, distinct and memorable.

  48. hilly
    May 09, 2013 @ 17:58:40

    @hilly:

    Yes! “Here Be Dragons” should be “Here Be Monsters.

    Sorry to inadvertently perpetuate an earlier (though completely understandable) posted error. Thanks to everyone who replied with the correct title!

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