The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook – Review

Book Jacket:

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.

Mina can’t afford his interest, however. Horde blood runs through her veins, and despite the nanotech enhancing her body, she barely scratches out a living in London society. Becoming Rhys’s lover would destroy both her career and her family, yet the investigation prevents her from avoiding him…and the Iron Duke’s ruthless pursuit makes him difficult to resist.

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.

You can read an excerpt here.

Review:

If you’re a fan of paranormal romance, you will very much enjoy The Iron Duke. As for me, I really did want to like it – I love Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, and a couple to root for (I loved Ilona Andrews’ Bayou Moon and Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate) but despite the tantalizing premise, in the end The Iron Duke turned out to be a fairly standard paranormal romance – that is to say, plenty of steam but no real substance. Hence my disgruntled disappointment.

To be fair, I’ve got a bit of a prejudice regarding the Romance genre – if I see a cover with nothing but a set of male abs, chiseled or not, I tend to avoid it, because no matter how many steamy scenes that book may have, the romance tends to be personality-free. It all seems to broil down to wish fulfillment, a man sweeping a woman off her feet and throwing her down on a bed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just is so one dimensional and repetitive that frankly I get bored.

But with the line between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance getting blurry, I decided just this once to ignore my rule and give The Iron Duke a try. Unfortunately I have only further solidified my just-say-no-to-abs-on-the-cover stance, because despite some absolutely brilliant world building and ideas, and some unbelievable potential, this book utterly adheres to the usual Romance tropes. The woman turns into a mushy puddle at the man’s feet, the plot not only takes a backseat to the romance, it actually gets stuffed in the trunk, duct taped and gagged, and in the end this story is basically an excuse for breathless longing. I would give just about anything to see this premise realized as an Urban Fantasy, because so much potential is wasted here.

And what a premise it is – Meljean Brook has built a fascinating world, an alternate history where the Mongol Empire conquered Britain and subjugated its population by infecting and controlling them with nano-technology. In the post invasion world, many humans have mechanical attachments along with nanites in their blood. Mina is a bastard half-Mongol Brit who faces anti-Horde racism every day of her life, and who chose to become a cop to support her family. The world is fantastic and the opening, which starts with a murder on the doorstep of Britain’s most famous Lord, is intriguing.

And then for the rest of the book Mina trails his Lordship like a puppy. The Duke brings her along for the ride solely because he has the hots for her, and she fails to bring anything meaningful to the investigation – you’d think, being an experienced cop, she would be an active part of the investigation, would add something, discover something that was crucial to unraveling the mystery. Instead, she becomes utterly superfluous – her competence, capability, and intelligence go on vacation for the duration of her tryst with the Duke. There’s a part in this book, literally, in last hundred pages of the story, where after Mina has been separated from her Duke, she realizes that she hasn’t thought about the case for the entirety of their romantic interlude – the vast majority of the book – and she realizes something very important, being as it’s the FIRST TIME she’s thought about it. A COP investigating a MURDER and her brain dribbles out her ears the moment she starts a physical relationship? Can we at least pretend the female character is in some way important and useful to the solving of the crime? Honestly, aside from two mildly ridiculous rope-swinging moments of heroism, Mina could have been completely excised from the story and the plot would have carried on without a hitch – the Duke, with his money and influence, runs the show; Mina is just there so she and the Duke can make eyes at each other. This is what drives me crazy about the Romance genre.

Meanwhile, there are AMAZING ideas cluttering up the background of this story and it is painful to watch them be passed by in favor of the romance. The social tensions between the people who survived the Mongol occupation and those who fled and have now returned (i.e. those who have nanites in their blood and those who don’t); the mysterious Blacksmith who can create living metal; the actual plot behind the murders; the Duke’s history as a slave; how Mina’s wonderful relationship with her adoptive father came about when her parents were initially so disgusted by the sight of her; how she can possibly get her job done when she’s spit on by just about everyone she sees; the fear of a weapon that could control everyone who has nanotechnology in their blood (a second coming of the nightmare of Horde control); whatever happened to the Horde and why they haven’t tried to take over Britain again; the emotional damage to those who were puppets under the Horder’s control – I absolutely loved all of this, and it is all glossed over and rushed past in favor of Mina’s utterly stereotypical romance. ARGH.

Brook does frame the steamy side of things as Mina’s struggle to overcome her fear of loosing control – as a child, the Horde forced her to participate in the Frenzy, the uncontrollable mating imperative the Horde triggered via the nanites to increase Britain’s population. Such an interesting idea, but once again it wasn’t fully realized – if it had been included in the story early on, established and explored before Mina’s bedroom romps began, if we had seen how it negatively impacted her life (there was a brief mention of how people lost it when they were first released from Horde control, but that was about it), I think it really could have worked. But instead, it felt like a half finished thought thrown in as an excuse for Mina and the Duke to perform sexual healing. Once again, something that could have been unique and interesting was subjugated to rote Romance genre lust.

There are nice interludes of action throughout this story, and they provide plenty of opportunities for Mina to pull her own weight, but they all pass her by – though she does occasionally get to shoot things. And while we get lots of internal monologues from the Duke’s POV about how amazing Mina is, we never get to see her doing anything to warrant his adoration. Likewise, we get lots of internal monologues from Mina’s POV about how much she wants the Duke but can’t have him, without ever really understanding the basis of the attraction. Lust, sure, there’s plenty of that, but I was not feeling the love.

Still, this book does have a lot going on, in the world and politics, and the murder mystery was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end. My brain did have a logic hitch at the idea that nanotechnology existed in a steam-powered world where people read by candle light and gas lamps, and the random inclusion of zombies felt mildly ridiculous (if there was a solid nano-tech reason to explain their existence, I would have been fine with it), but still, this story is definitely is a cut above your standard Romance fare. But at its core, this is pretty much your stereotypical pirate captain romance.

So if you’re a Romance fan, you will adore this book. If, like me, you’re more on the UF/Steampunk side, you will probably be frustrated by just how much a Romance it is.

Meljean Brook, please, please write an Urban Fantasy novel someday. I’ll be first in line.

Byrt Grade: I’m too subjectively prejudiced to fairly grade it.

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Dear Author says:

The mystery surrounding the dead body and the adventures it led Rhys and Mina to undertake entertained me almost as much as the romance, which was sexy and heartwarming. What’s more, the book felt truly different from other romances, even the other steampunkish romances I’ve read in the past. For its freshness, its riveting plot and its lovable characters, I give The Iron Duke a B+/A-.

The Book Smugglers say:

It is a fascinating, inventive, full-of-possibilities world that Meljean Brook has created and I can’t wait to read more books set in it…I loved the world-building and the mystery and adventure of The Iron Duke but was not completely sold on the romance

All Things Urban Fantasy says:

The steampunk and paranormal subgenres have been combining with great success lately…and now The Iron Duke is the latest title to blend these two genres together in an eerily familiar yet wholly other England, with a sweeping romance that crosses social classes, blood borne nanites, ingenious mechanisms, and truly creepy zombies. What’s not to love?

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