This review brought to you by September Zombies & Capt. PiRat
(and vvb32 reads. And Talk Like a Pirate Day)
Also, there be talk of smut.
Also, there be talk of smut.
Yeah. All of that.
The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook
Steampunk/Historical/Zombies and a whole lotta stuffs, 378 pages
October 5th 2010 from Berkley Trade
Oh, The Iron Duke. Where do I even begin? I guess first I should thank Velvet for being so amazeballs and sending this to me (thanks, V!). I overcame my loathing of "chestical" covers to read this due to its inclusion of steampunk zombies, and for all that it is flawed, I have to say I enjoyed (nearly) every minute of it.
Forgive me, then, for starting with the things I not-so-much liked. The titular character, the Iron Duke, is...rapey. If you don't read a lot of romance in this vein, you may not get the distinction of what I am about to say, or why it bothered me:
Romance (historical, paranormal, urban, doesn't matter) is very densely populated with "alpha male" characters. Sometimes they work and you love them for being flawed and domineering, but ultimately protective and cuddle-able. These aren't men you'd date in real life, but they are good for warming up a cold night. (A cold night curled up with a book, people.)
Sometimes they don't work, and you see them for the d-bags they are. They're too cocky, too domineering, and too handsy - in a number of ways, not all of them good - to ever really feel comfortable with. They've had one too many slices of testosteroni and they come off more skeevy than smexy.
And then there's the Duke. The simple fact is, he takes d-baggery to a different level. But really only where sex is concerned. In most respects he's an interesting character - he's a former/would-be-again pirate, and sort of one of the more terrifying guys around, so you'd expect a little roughness. But where all that is concerned, he's kind of likeable. Despite his unhealthy and turn-offish penchant for looking at everything and everyone he values as his "possession", he actually seems to have a fair few things going for him. He's smart, he's strong, he's good looking in a threatening, scowlish way. He sees through bullshit, fights for what he loves or believes in, and doesn't seem to comprehend, let alone care about, deal-breaker flaws like racism, etc. There are things about him to like.
But then Mina comes into the picture and his possessive tendencies go into overdrive. Apparently the man cannot be gentle for more than 2 seconds; any longer and he must push Mina against a wall or threaten to shag her brains out. And I do mean threaten; sometimes throaty growls of this nature can be sexy, but the Duke's all seem to imply "whether you like it or not" - Mina doesn't really seem to have a say in the matter; for the Duke it is a foregone conclusion. [Also, PSA: "shag" is about the un-sexiest sex-related word ever. And it was used SO MANY TIMES. And then again in the next book I read. Can we all just agree that, unless you are talking about carpet or you are this man, shag should be excised from your vocabulary.]
Ok, so lest you think I'm just being sensitive to this issue, let me make things a little clearer: Mina has been raped before, and lives her life in fear of beatings and rapes because of who she is. She is justifiably terrified of sex. Like, full-blown panic attacks, terrified. And the Duke knows this. And still with the rape-iness.
And I was even willing to kind of go with this thinking that it was going to be a bit of a redemptive story, with the Duke opening up and learning how to be a little more gentle and understanding as he learns to love. And he does learn to love, I have no doubt of his affection for Mina. But his sexuality takes ardent and intimidating over the line into downright scary, all the way to the end of the book. He never really changes, and that was a letdown.
On the minor issues side, there were a lot of copy-editing mistakes for a finished book, and I couldn't help but let it annoy me near the end. Things would be going along fine and then BAM, glaring mistake. There were things that were really forced as well, like the fact that every one calls the Iron Duke 'the Iron Duke' to his face. Seemed a little weird for the Victorian-ish society, which is so particular about address, since it's really a nickname, and not always one said with love. The Duke's treatment of Mina and their doubt of each other, their constant misunderstandings, etc, seemed forced too, and were very obviously plot devices.
But despite all this, I ate this book up. I know, I know, you're saying how can you write so much negative crap and then say "I liked it, you should read it"? Like this:
I liked it, you should read it.
What can I say? Like the Duke, it was flawed, but the fact of the matter is, it's still a good damn book! Meljean Brook can write, and in a genre that's often very fluffy, this one has some definite substance to it. The world building was just fantastic - I read the synopsis and thought "Zombies? Steampunk? Victoriana? Piracy? Politics? Smut? Racism and women's lib? Kraken and megalodons? Adventures and inspectings? Nano-technology? There's no way this is all going to work together." BUT IT DID. I can't really call this book any one of those many, many things - it's each of them in nearly equal measure, and it's kind of incredible for it. All of these potentially extreme parts worked together harmoniously to build a world that was fascinating and wholly different from ours, and yet still believable. Each thing seemed like it belonged. Brook understands that no matter how far-fetched your world, you still have to have rules, you still have to have stakes, and actions have to have consequences. You have to set your limits and, though you may push them, you can never break them if you want the reader to buy your world or care at all.
I bought it and I cared.
And despite the rapiness of the Duke at times, there are other times where it's just plain good and smexy. Brook doesn't hold back, and there is a shockingly large usage of the word 'cock' for a Victorian-ish society. And what's even more shocking is that it didn't seem all that out of place. Brook's Victorian-like London is changed enough that there is good reason to believe people a bit more uninhibited and accepting of things like this. But most of all, Mina is kick ass. I love her and I rooted for her and I want to read more of her adventures. A book like this basically hinges on the male and female leads, and where the Duke was a bit of a bother for me, Mina made up for it in spades. She's dynamic and she grows throughout the story, opening up and confronting things and learning to embrace who she is. It's lovely. And it's worth it to read this book just for the scene where Mina slides down a rope from an airship and takes on a giant effing Kraken. I'm sorry if that was a built spoilery, but come on! That would have made it into the teaser trailer if this were a movie, so I feel no shame in sharing.
So yeah. There you have it. It's not without its flaws, and some big ones at that, but for all that it may really bother some people, a lot more are going to find things to love in it. I normally pick up a book and say "Ugh, another series?" even when it sounds interesting, but this one I'm actually glad is the first of a series - I'm eager to see more of Mina's world.