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