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Review by: David Stonehouse
Meljean Brook – The Iron Duke
Penguin £7.99

Meljean Brooks’ The Iron Duke is the opening novel in a series of steampunk romance novels. Anyone wondering what that might involve will get a fairly good idea from the rather gorgeous artwork on the cover. There’s lots of lovely steampunk imagery; a smoky looking London, clockwork, airships and the like and some characters in very glamorous swashbuckling outfits from a non-specific Victorian-ish past. Very nice, but it does also have a definite whiff of Mills and Boon romance about it. As it happens the welding together of two very different genres in the artwork is a pretty accurate reflection of the contents. Does it work? Hold your clockwork horses, my friends, I’m getting to that.

Brooks places her action in an alternative timeline where the world was over-run years ago by the Mongol Horde led by Ghengis Khan. In the centuries since then technology has developed along a different path where steam still dominates but human altering nano-agents have had a huge effect on many races and cultures. Much of Europe has become inaccessible because it is inhabited only by swarms of flesh eating zombies created by a failed nano experiment. The British Isles, on the furthest edge of the Horde Empire have just been liberated from the Horde by the heroic actions of Rhys Trahaearn, an enigmatic merchant trader stroke dodgy pirate. As a reward for freeing Britain from the Horde oppressors he has been made a Duke (the Iron Duke of the title) and taken up residence in London. To be honest, that little summary barely scratches the surface of Brook’s creation. Her alternative world is a very impressive feat of imagination. It has fully realised and detailed history, politics, geography and economics that make this a rewarding and immersive environment for the reader. This bodes well for the series as there is a huge potential for storytelling here.

The adventure kicks off in London with our heroine Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth sent to the Iron Duke’s estate to investigate a mysterious death. A dead body has been dropped onto the Duke’s land from an airship and the corpse is so badly damaged that it cannot be immediately identified. However, it is clear that this is meant as a message from one of the Duke’s many enemies. Initially the Duke is outraged to find that the Police have been dragged into his private affairs but the Inspector is a very pretty thing and the Duke is a red-blooded man. As soon as he decides that he has to ‘have’ Mina she gets whisked along for the ride. The Detective is determined to do her duty and solve the mystery but it’s obvious from the Duke’s attentions that the mystery isn’t the only thing he wants to investigate.

From the dead man in the garden the mystery leads Mina and the Duke into the sleazy underbelly of good old London town, across the channel to dangerous zombie infested France, to showdowns on the high seas and eventually to a satisfying finale with the fate of everyone in the free world at stake.

Mina is a great character to build a story around. She is brave and resourceful and it is easy to believe that the Iron Duke would fall for her as hard as he does. She is also an excellent way for Brook to show off the depth of her imagination in this world. Mina is part Horde and through her personal story Brook is able to flesh to the bones of the attitudes and politics of this culture. She is prejudiced against and abused daily for her painful family history. It works very well, making Mina a character to be admired for her determination to rise above the bad hand fate has dealt her and make her way in a world where everyone who looks at her sees a reminder of their hated enemies.

The Iron Duke is less well presented. At the beginning he seems an untrustworthy rogue and pirate. He doesn’t seem to have any conscience and doesn’t care about operating within the law. His character arc is everything you would expect. He begins as the Mr Wrong that Mina knows she shouldn’t have anything to do with but oh –sigh – he’s just so big and strong and sexy and gorgeous. Inevitably it turns out that really he isn’t a nasty pirate at all, he’s just a misunderstood nice guy who needed to find the right girl. Viewed from a gender relations point of view he really isn’t a very healthy idea of a hero at all. From the first time he sees Mina he fancies her. He opens his card by telling her he is going to ‘have’ her and when she rejects his advances he just ignores her. No really doesn’t mean no with the Iron Duke. He interprets her rejection as an invitation to trap her in an elevator and feel her up, safe in the knowledge that she doesn’t mean it and she’ll just give in if he keeps harassing her. It’s all a bit creepy and borderline rape-stalkerish to be honest.

So, back to the question of whether it works or not. For me the answer is no, it doesn’t really. It’s a cut and shunt job that just doesn’t look right. The steampunk fantasy element is fantastic, wildly imaginative and exciting but the bodice-ripping romance bit is a string of by-numbers clichés. Anyone enjoying the rollercoaster adventure will find the pauses for the ‘romance’ highly intrusive. The crashing tone changes are a nightmare. The story will be racing headlong into an all out action sequence only to suddenly grind to a halt for twenty pages of cheesy dialogue, heaving bosoms, thrusting hardness, panting and not very erotic shagging scenes (‘shag’ is Brook’s default word for sex, which is mildly hilarious in itself). On the other hand, readers hoping to just put their feet up for a blissful escape into an erotic romantic fantasy will find there isn’t enough of that either.

There’s a lot here to enjoy, but, overall, it’s hard to believe that there are many readers out there for who this will be a perfect mix.

2 thoughts on “The Iron Duke”
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