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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
The Iron Duke -  Meljean Brook In which China conquers the known world not with cheaply priced chachkes to be sold in Wal-Mart, but with nanotechnology and mind rays....

Kidding. Sort of.

In the alternate history of The Iron Duke, an Asian culture known has the Horde conquered vast swaths of Europe by infecting their opponents with nanoagents, teeny little machines, aka, "bugs," that swim about in the infected's blood. The infection had two variants. The first variant turned people into zombies, because you simply can't have a good story without zombies. The second was a mixed blessing. This infection provided enhanced strength and healing ability while also including a susceptibility to mind-controlling rays. Via a specific radio frequency, the Horde was able to control the populace of England. The idea is vaguely reminiscent of the movie Equilibrium, where all war and violence was eliminated from society by removing everything that generated emotion. Here, the Horde created a nice tractable population by preventing the infected--"buggers"--from feeling any emotions; no highs or lows. The presence of buggers also seems to make it possible to modify humans with job-specific enhancements, e.g., steam hammers instead of arms. (That concept being vaguely reminiscent of China Mieville's Bas Lag books, except there the ReMade were altered as a form of punishment.)

Of course, being controlled this way doesn't sit well with everyone--well, anyone, but what can you do when mindwaves are turning you into a compliant little drone?--and one enterprising pirate, Rhys Trahaearn, takes it upon himself to drive a ship up the Thames and blow up the Horde's main cell-, I mean, mindwave tower. And thus England was freed.

The Iron Duke takes place a few years after that event. Rhys, our hero, formerly the scourge of the seas, has been granted a dukedom and is now one of the most powerful men in England. Mina Wentworth, the heroine, is a police inspector called up to investigate the dead body that has literally been dropped from sky onto Rhys's estate. Mina, one of the strongest and more interesting romance heroine's I've read in a loooong time, is a capable inspector, but is nonetheless followed everywhere by a constable named Newberry. Why? Well, because the Horde had a hobby. Periodically, the Horde would send out lust-making waves into the public, resulting in a Frenzy, which is a polite way of saying "mass orgy." Mina is the result of one Frenzy where her mother, though married, did the naughty naked with one of the Horde invaders.

Though raised as his own by her English father, Mina's heritage is plain on her face and she faces hostility everywhere she goes. Newberry is her bodyguard.

Of course, Rhys, for all his faults--pirate, arrogant, big brutish alpha--doesn't share his fellow citizens' bias. He takes one look at Mina and decides he will have her. Mina just wishes he's get his enormous self the hell out of her way so that she can find out what made the dead body into meat.

Except what seems like a straightforward murder investigation balloons into a vast web of conspiracies at the highest levels of the government and military, culminating in a race to stop a steampunk doomsday machine.

One of my biggest complaints with paranormal and SF romance is the absence of solid world building. I remember a blog posting at one of my publisher's websites, where an author gushed about world building, only to preface her comments with, "...but it's only just a backdrop for the romance." I was like, "Really? Just a meaningless backdrop? Then what's the frigging point?"

Now, I know I'm not the typical romance reader. I don't want it to be just about the Relationship. Life isn't just about the Relationship. Couples in real life begin as individuals with lives, problems and conflicts that go on despite the lurve.

There's nothing more annoying that starting a para/SF romance that seems to be grounded in solid world building and a strong conflict outside of the relationship, only to have it devolved into an angsty-f*ck fest halfway through the book. The Iron Duke has plenty of hot sex, but it doesn't develop the relationship at the expense of other subplots. This is a richly plotted book with tasty layers of conflict, intrigue, action and yes, emotion. I particularly enjoyed the fact that story line brings in deeper socio-political-racial issues: bigotry against those with Horde blood and toward the buggers; the exploitation of the working class, etc. No, it's not preachy, but the novel doesn't paint a flat picture of an alternate history where people are dressed in Victorian fashions while riding airships. This is a fully realized society.

The only thing that annoyed me about The Iron Duke was...spoiler alert...
Mina's rationale for why she and Rhys couldn't be together. Basically, she decides that if she and Rhys are a couple, the public will accuse him of being in league with the Horde, and generally make her and her family miserable. Except...she's been dealing with this crap all her life. At this point, she obviously has rhino-tough skin. And The Iron Duke is still the mother-fracking-Iron Duke, savior of England and all that. If anything, she is better off with him, than without. This supposed obstacle to their love is ironed out a little too smoothly when she saves his life--again. (Did I mention how awesome it is that she saves his bacon, not the other way around. Yay, a real feminist heroine!) At that point, the problem is her more believable concern that she is just his f*ck toy, to be thrown away on a whim. Okay, that, I understand, since Rhys isn't exactly forthcoming about his feelings for Mina. The story could have skipped the entire "but the people will draw ugly cartoons of us" shtick altogether and been much better for it.

Nevertheless, I give this a rare five stars for its strong plot, romantic and otherwise, and vivid world building. I'm definitely going to trying more of Brook's books.