This is the first book I have read by this author, and for the first half or so, I read it with rather mixed feelings, mostly delighted but thoroughly exasperated at certain passages. Fortunately it turned out to be an excellent read overall, and most definitely a series to follow.
Let’s begin with the best feature, the one that sometimes left me breathless while reading: the world-building, which is superb. In this version of history, the Mongols – throughout the novel referred to as the Horde – developed dramatically advanced technology and used it to conquer and dominate the whole of Asia, Europe and Africa. Due to trickery, England fell 200 years before the start of the novel, and the whole population (except for a lucky few who escaped to America) was enslaved using nanoagents in their blood, then abused and exploited unspeakably. Nine years before the novel starts, the English staged a successful rebellion and drove the Horde out. Now some of the American émigré families have returned, and the British people are slowly forging a new society.
Using this backdrop, Meljean Brook creates an intricate and darkly magical tapestry of a society that was broken, social rules that don’t apply any more, and steampunk technology that is feared as much as it is desired. Glimpses are provided of how matters stand on the European continent, in Africa and the Americas that just made me burn to read novels set in all these places. There is no magic in Brook’s world, but the technology is partly more advanced even than what we possess in the early 21st century. The effect is both tragic and hopeful: While in many aspects Brook’s world is apocalyptic, with a great number of heart-rending details, it’s also one where those who survived are building new places for themselves, and rediscovering strength and even joy in themselves.
The novel starts out at a ball given by one of the newly-returned aristocratic families and highlights glaringly how little understanding there is between those who had to stay and those who lived in safety. One of the guests is Mina Wentworth. The daughter of an impoverished earl (a physician) and his countess (an inventor), she works as a detective inspector for the London Metropolitan Police. She is almost relieved when her sergeant turns up to inform her about a body that was found on the Isle of Dogs. The real mystery is, the body was found on the steps of the Duke of Anglesey’s house. The Iron Duke, a former pirate who played a pivotal part in the revolution, is both the most powerful and the most revered man in the country, so who’d want to attract his attention in such a way? Anglesey plans to deal with the perpretator on his own, accordingly he is not inclined at first to let the police get involved, but Mina impresses him with some sharp conclusions, so they end up investigating together.
Mina is a wonderful heroine. Fully dedicated to her work, she is clever, resourceful, loyal and professional. Her personal background is tragic, as she is half-Horde, the result of her mother being raped. Due to her Asian looks, she is distrusted and reviled by many, yet she deals with this with both courage and dignity. When she meets Anglesey, she is instantly attracted to him, even while condemning his past as a slaver, but is forced to react to his advances (see below) before she can begin to understand her emotions. She deals with any bad situation she is thrown into as well as she can, and I admired and loved her.
I did not love Anglesey at first. Rhys Trahaearn is one of those larger-than-life heroes, in body, influence, charisma, you name it. At the beginning of the novel, he shows clearly that he lives according to his own rules, faintly disdainful about and towards everybody not a close association of his, and perfectly well-prepared to run roughshod over anyone getting in his way. While this is not particularly attractive, it fit with what the reader gets to know about Rhys’s history, and is plausible given the brutality of the world dominated by the Horde.
When he meets Mina (over a naked and very dead body, no less), Rhys is instantly and strongly attracted to her, and by the next morning has determined to make her his mistress. He at once asks if she’s with a man, then offers to pay her more. Mina rejects him, and Rhys first utterly fails to take her seriously, and when she makes her point physically, reacts to the challenge with all the alacrity of a Pavlovian dog. While this may sound funny in the retelling, in the novel it’s just disturbing. At that point in the story, Rhys only lusts for Mina, and never for a second considers she might really want autonomy over her own actions or her own body. Given their differences in status and physical power, this is seriously creepy.
Then they go detecting together, and Rhys turns out to be capable, well-connected, decisive and occasionally compassionate. His and Mina’s adventures are colorful, and I was glued to the page. But for a long time I was fearing the next time Rhys would take up his “wooing” again, and the huge pleasure I felt would be spoiled by his jerkiness. He does redeem himself – slowly, though with two major relapses, one of which is truly painful to read about. At least by that time I cared enough about Rhys to hurt not just for Mina, but also for him.
In the end, it depends how you like your heroes. Kudos to Meljean Brook for creating one who is really nasty at times (partly because he doesn’t know better, but still) and, through the power of her exquisite writing, takes you on a rollercoaster of hating and loving him. Even though, as a rule, I am not too fond of characters changed to such the extent that Rhys is by the power of love, here I did buy it and ended the book with a sigh of contentment.
What is to add? The writing is beautiful and very descriptive. The sex scenes are hot, but there are not that many of them – there is a lot else going on after all. I simply adored the secondary characters, from Mina’s family to Rhys’s crew to the captain of the airship Lady Corsair, and can’t wait to read more about them. Although the book is about as far as you can get from being an allegory, there are a number of thought-provoking ways in which the world depicted mirrors our own world which had me musing long after.
Reading The Iron Duke was an intense read that created conflicting emotions in me, but which in the end proved a gripping experience I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. The Iron Seas series has catapulted itself on my autobuy list (next I must get the prequel to this novel, There Be Monsters in the Burning Up anthology), and I recommend it most highly.
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