When Guilty Pleasures Meet Steampunk – A Review of The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

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Everyone has a few guilty pleasures: things we genuinely enjoy, but feel embarrassed to admit enjoying. It could be anything: trashy television, romantic comedies, chocolate-dipped bacon – basically anything that we think other people will look funny at us for if they knew we liked these things.

Admitting to a guilty pleasure, though, is a pleasure on its own, especially when that guilty pleasure is shared. There’s a lot of secret giggling to be had, knowing looks to be shared – the kind that comes when one shares a secret with someone else, and knows there’s no shame in having that secret.

Romance novels are my guilty pleasure. There was a time when I wouldn’t have admitted that, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I honestly don’t care who knows. I am, however, quite picky about the romance novels I pick up. I read historical romance, for the most part, but I also have a soft spot for urban fantasy romance novels, ever since I got into Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters universe (a great series overall, with very few misses). I have yet to get into the sci-fi romance novels, but I expect I’ll get round to them, eventually.

The reason I go more for the genre-specific romances is simple: I like world-building. Even historical romances require a bit of world-building, in order to set a sense of time and place – the precise reason I gravitated to them in the first place. And when I realized that steampunk had become popular enough that there were romance novels being written in the genre, I knew I had to find an example to try out. Moving cautiously through the morass (because sometimes just looking at the blurb on the back was enough to make me pass on some of the books I considered), I finally settled on The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook.

To be honest, the cover didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me at first. While I know that half-naked men seem to be the standard for romance novel covers, I was rather hoping that The Iron Duke would fall somewhere outside the typical run-of-the-mill romances I was used to reading. After finishing the novel, I’m rather glad to note that, while it does fall in line with typical romance novels at some points, it does not in some places, as well.

First, the places where it falls in line with the typical romance novel. The titular Iron Duke, Rhys Trahearn, doesn’t strike me as being very different from the Standard Romance Novel Hero: tall, dark, brooding, with a chip (several chips, really) on his shoulder. He’s done heroic things, but there’s also a lot that he’s not proud of, and it takes falling in lust at first sight, and then later on in love, with a woman to bring him some comfort and stability. These are the typical, standard patterns when it comes to the heroes of romance novels, established by Jane Austen with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and then expanded upon since then by numerous other writers. I was rather hoping there would be something different about him, but was not entirely surprised, either, when I didn’t find it.

The love story, too, was rather typical. Heroine and Hero meet. Hero desires Heroine almost instantly but Heroine denies it. Several significant events happen that allow Hero and Heroine to expose their softer, more emotional underbellies to each other. Hero and Heroine have life-changing sex. Emotional conflict occurs, separating Hero and Heroine because they can’t get over themselves. One of them nearly dies, forcing the other to realize that they really can’t live without their beloved. Story concludes with the recovery of the one who nearly died, and the affirmation of their love as they pledge undying devotion to each other. This is an almost standard plot in a great many romance novels, and while I was hoping for something different, I was not entirely surprised that the pattern remained the same.

One of the reasons I find myself forgiving the use of the Typical Hero and a Typical Plotline in many romance novels is because they are practically par on course for the genre. A reader of romance novels really ought to expect that sort of thing, because while it’s possible to make changes here and there to them, they will essentially remain the same because they pretty much make the genre what it is. While I’m sure there are many, many romance novel writers out there who struggle to buck this in their writing, I also understand that there are only so many ways one can alter the pattern. And besides, there’s something very comforting about the predictability of this pattern: the reader knows that, eventually, the Hero and Heroine will make love, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

Given these factors, what makes a romance novel enjoyable in my eyes, then, are two things: a good heroine, and a great world to support the romance itself. In the case of The Iron Duke I was able to find both, but to varying degrees of enjoyability.

First, the world. The Iron Duke is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Regency (I think) England, wherein the populace has been under the control of a group called the Horde. Everyone in England is infected with nanobots, which the Horde are capable of controlling via radio waves. Recently, however, the Iron Duke managed to cut an enormous swathe through the Horde in England, finally succeeding in throwing off Horde control by destroying the radio tower that they used to manipulate the population. England has begun to rebuild, but still, lingering prejudice and old hurts remain.

What I found interesting about the world-building for this novel is that it’s not given to the reader on a silver platter. There are hints and clues scattered all throughout the book that the reader has to catch in order to figure out what is going on. Take, for instance, the use of the world “Horde” to refer to the people who occupied England. It took me a while to figure it out and to put the clues together, but by the time I’d figured it out I realized that my initial assumptions about the term were correct: “Horde” is shorthand for “Golden Horde,” the term used to collectively describe a group of Mongol warlords who came close to conquering all of Europe during the Middle Ages. This means that, in the world of The Iron Duke, not only have the Golden Horde succeeded in doing so, they accomplished this because of their extremely superior technology – technology which includes not only radio waves, but nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, as well. As the novel goes on, more and more of this world is explored, again in bits and pieces. Something as large as the Golden Horde with superior technology conquering Europe has wide-reaching repercussions, and the way it has shaped the rest of the course of European history is made very evident.

While this technique of exploring the world in bits and pieces is pretty valid as a method of storytelling, I did find that it had some disadvantages. The chief of these disadvantages is that my understanding of the world in which The Iron Duke is set is patchy, to say the least. The world has shifted so much that all the familiar nations and groups of people have been significantly altered, so even if I was familiar with the period of history being used, I still had difficulty figuring out who was who and what was what and where was where. There is simply not enough time devoted to explaining certain aspects of the world – explanations I would really have appreciated. This is the same problem I had with The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, though not to the same frustrating degree. I know the book’s primary genre is “romance,” but if there had been a clearer, more comprehensive approach to the world-building, I might have liked this more. I also suspect that much has been left out for further exploration in the sequel, because there is indeed a second book after this one.

As for Mina, the heroine, she falls into the type of female characters I like the most, no matter what the genre: independent and capable of taking care of herself, and taking care of others at the same time. She has a very strong sense of duty which I find very admirable in any character I encounter, in any genre, and I also like how that sense of duty is also presented as something of a flaw in her. She’s dedicated to her duty, that much is true, but she uses it as an escape, to avoid having to deal with her own personal problems. She’s pragmatic, even if she takes it too far at times, preferring to ignore her emotions instead of simply succumbing to them. The explanation for why Mina is thus is explained and developed beautifully in the novel, and rather more than makes up for what I found lacking in the Trahearn’s characterization.

As for the other characters, they too are quite interesting, and flesh out the world of the novel quite well. Scarsdale, for instance, is an intriguing character, and if I choose to pick up the second novel I’d like to see more of him again. Yasmeen, captain of the airship Lady Corsair, is an equally fascinating character who falls into the mold of female characters I enjoy (though she’s a bit too high-strung at times for my taste), and as I understand it her story is told in the second book. The character known only as the Blacksmith is also particularly intriguing, and I’d definitely like to see more of him.

All told, The Iron Duke is not a bad romance novel: not as good as some of the ones I’ve read before, but certainly not as terrible as some of the other ones I looked at. For anyone wishing for a light, romantic, steampunk-y read, then this is definitely something that’s worth looking into.

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