My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Iron Duke came highly recommended as a steampunk novel, with the caveat that it’s also very much a romance novel, and not being a fan of the latter, I was skeptical. VERY skeptical. Not only was it the first romance novel I’ve ever read, it’s the first full-length novel of any type I’ve read completely as an ebook (via Kindle for iPad and Blackberry), so the deck was really stacked against it. But Meljean Brook nailed it, combining a fascinating setting with an engaging cast of characters and a fast-paced thriller of a story, so by the time she weaves the romance in, it actually works without feeling (too) corny or distracting.
Brook’s worldbuilding skills are impressive, her Iron Seas setting rivaling Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century for potential stories, and I daresay its backstory is actually a bit more compelling, despite my general preference for American-flavored steampunk. A great setting is nothing without great characters, and Brook’s cast is one of the most compelling I’ve read in recent years, led by Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth, a rare three-dimensional female heroine and the true star of the story.
The romance — and by “romance” I mean “sex” — looms over the story from the beginning, but Brook takes her time bringing it front and center, and when she finally does right around the middle, it’s explicit without ever crossing the line into gratuitous. The relationship between Mina and the Duke is surprisingly complex, though, smartly tied into one of the key elements of the world’s backstory, and Brook’s delicate balance is what makes this Steampunk Romance instead of Romantic Steampunk, a key difference for non-Romance fans.
While I don’t see myself ever reading much Romance, I am definitely looking forward to the next installment in Brooks’ Iron Seas series, and might even check out her “Here There Be Monsters” short in the Burning Up anthology.
PS: About the ebook experience, while I remain a hardcore print advocate, I “get” the appeal of ebooks, especially for disposable fiction. A good story makes the container disappear, and this was the first time that happened for me. That said, if The Iron Duke had an alternate cover, say one featuring Mina or Marco’s Terror or even the Blacksmith, I’d buy a copy in print.