Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

After the Iron Duke freed England from Horde control, he instantly became a national hero. Now Rhys Trahaearn has built a merchant empire on the power - and fear - of his name. And when a dead body is dropped from an airship onto his doorstep, bringing Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth into his dangerous world, he intends to make her his next possession.

But when Mina uncovers the victim's identity, she stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens the lives of everyone in England. To save them, Mina and Rhys must race across zombie-infested wastelands and treacherous oceans-and Mina discovers the danger is not only to her countrymen, as she finds herself tempted to give up everything to the Iron Duke.

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This book has shown me why I've avoided steampunk settings before, for I find the whole thing very bizarre as my brain refuses to reconcile an advanced tech like nanoagents inside a body with an 1800s-ish time period (though some of the clockwork devices described in this book are most definitely very intriguing...). That said, I found this to be a very enjoyable read with compelling characters that I couldn't help getting wrapped up with. Many things about this world might have been rather too strange for my tastes, but the characters were very easy to identify with, and the situations they found themselves in were, on the whole, fairly believable.

Mina is, at first glance, very much the classic English Detective Inspector down to the emotional detachment, cool logic, and brisk efficiency of her manner. The target of constant ridicule and hatred from those of the general populace who don't know her because of her mixed parentage, she holds herself above it and doesn't give people the satisfaction of a reaction, at least in public. Privately, however, the taunts and insults tear her apart, and have hardened her against even considering a romantic relationship with anyone. It is this private hurt, and the crippling fear of those she loves being hurt in any way because of her, that is at the heart of her often puzzling resistance to Rhys and her adamant refusal to entertain any possibility of them being able to have any sort of relationship. Her attitude is understandable to a point, though I at least had trouble fathoming the reasons for why she persisted with it to the lengths that she did. Maybe she was justified in fearing the public backlash and humiliation she'd face if she were to openly be with him, but I can't help feeling that she was perhaps overreacting a least somewhat. It's hard to say, however, as events by the end of the book had largely negated most of the arguments she made against their getting together.

Rhys is in many ways the stereotypical self-made man. Brash, aggressive, authoritative to the point of stark arrogance - all qualities that he's come by fairly naturally during his hard life as first a slave and later a conscripted sailor and then pirate captain after he led a mutiny against his captain while in the navy. A reluctant hero, at least as regards his reputation as the man who freed England from they tyrannical Horde empire that had occupied it for two centuries, he nevertheless has a good heart buried under the rough exterior that he shows to the world. His methods may at times be harsh, but it's eventually seen that he has good reasons for most all of what he does, and arrogance or cruelty are almost never one of them. I'll admit that I didn't care for him at first, but he eventually won me over as we got to see more and more of the real man behind the public persona.

There were several things about the book and the story that bothered me, though it's difficult to go into them without getting too much into spoilers. There were several points at which I didn't think the story flowed quite smoothly, or situations that I thought were resolved much too easily, or story elements that didn't make a lot of sense because there wasn't ever enough justification given for them. Those things aside, however, I found the book to be quite enjoyable, largely because of the well-written, complex characters that made me care about what happened to them. Anyone who's into steampunk will most likely be interested in this one, though those who are into fantasy with heavy sci-fi type elements will likely also enjoy it.

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