The Iron Duke -  Meljean Brook As a rule I do not read much in the Romance genre. But I have been pleasantly surprised when I have wandered off the ranch, and when two GR Friends whose opinions I respect enthusiastically reviewed this book and its sequel, I jumped the fence and wandered off into the brush. I still might have resisted the lure except for the setting of the book – an alternate history where the Mongols have conquered much of the world and dominate the rest through nanotechnology and other advances. England has recently thrown off the Horde’s yoke and is adjusting to life free from its control. (And it’s not simply political control. Through its “bugs,” the nanoagents that infected most Britons, the Horde controlled their very bodies.) It’s very much in the steampunk tradition with airships, steam-powered suits of armor and mechanical prosthetics grafted to humans and animals (e.g., our heroine’s mother’s eyes or the armor-plated sharks of the high seas). It wasn’t the steampunk elements that attracted me, however. The steampunk genre alone doesn’t do it for me. It was the Mongol angle that drew me in. Any alternate history where the Great Khan and his descendants figures prominently will always catch my eye (e.g., Alastair Reynolds’ The Six Directions of Space).

On occasion, my friends’ recommendations have fallen flat (ahem…Guy Gavriel Kay…cough…cough) but in this case our predilections have coincided. I enjoyed The Iron Duke. I can’t give it four stars but it definitely gets a solid, enthusiastic three. The story begins with the investigation of a body dropped onto the grounds of the Iron Duke, Rhys Trahaern, the man who destroyed the Horde’s broadcasting tower and freed the island. And we know immediately the kind of man we’re dealing with:

She turned to find a man as big as his voice. Oh, damn the newssheets. They hadn’t been kind to him - they’d been kind to their readers, protecting them from the effect of this man. A hollow fear shivered within her, much like the first time she’d run into a razor-clawed ratcatcher in an alley – the instinctive knowledge that she faced something dangerous and that she didn’t wholly understand.

Not that he looked strange, or mutated as those ratcatchers were. He was just as hard and as handsome as the caricatures had portrayed – altogether dark and forbidding, with a gaze as pointed and as guarded as the fence that was his namesake. The Iron Duke wasn’t as tall as his statue, but still taller than any man had a right to be, and as broad through the shoulders as Newberry, but without the spare flesh. (p. 22)

The case falls to Mina Wentworth, a ½-Horde detective inspector of London’s police force. The case rapidly expands into a far reaching conspiracy that implicates the highest levels in the British government in a plot to kill all the Britons infected with the Horde’s nanoagents. It’s a measure of Brook’s virtuosity that, while I may have conveyed the gist of what the plot is, there are any number of details that make the story and its world interesting. Brook adroitly avoids the dreaded “infodump,” and leaves the reader wanting to know more. An example is the Frenzy. The Horde would take over the bodies of its subjects and force them to participate in orgies. They were aware of what was happening but utterly incapable of stopping themselves. Mina is a child of one of these Frenzies and must put up with the sometimes violent prejudices of her fellow Britons. Or there’s the situation of the refugees who fled Europe in the wake of the Horde’s conquest. They have created nations-in-exile, and Britain is trying to accept her exiles – the “bounders” as opposed to the “buggers,” descendants of those left behind – and it is a focus of much of the plot as well as one of Mina’s problems in her relationship with Trahaern.

Ah, yes…the relationship. The reason you’re more likely to find this book shelved in the Romance section of your local bookshop or library. Based upon the reviews of other Romances I’ve read, I was expecting a more over-the-top, completely unbelievable seduction but, with a few caveats, I found it believable and I hope Brook pushes the Romantic conventions to the breaking point in exploring it (i.e., I will be very disappointed if we wind up the series like Robert Heinlein’s Friday – a thoroughly domesticated heroine settling down to a happy life pumping out babies with the man who raped her). The reason the dynamic between Mina and Trahaern worked for me was that I couldn’t imagine either of these two having a normal relationship. Trahaern is practically a virgin when it comes to sex. He did not practice much, if any, rapine in his career as a pirate, and has availed himself little in his position as national hero. His introduction to sex was as a toy in particularly nasty and brutal SM fantasies. He also exhibits a compulsion to possess and control things he wants, including people. Not acting the way he does throughout the novel would have strained credulity more than how he does. I can accept that he loves Mina but that often he can only express it in unhealthy ways. And that includes the rapey scene at the very end of the book – it’s indefensible and in a non-Romance novel would probably end the relationship but I understood why it happened and believed that it could. Mina’s past is only marginally better – she at least has a family and friends that love her and the example of her parents’ relationship. But her introduction to and only experience of sex comes from the Frenzies, and she’s terrified of the powerful emotions and physical feelings that sex elicits. And on top of that there’s the ferocious bigotry her ancestry brings, and how she, her family and her friends would be destroyed if it became known that she was “the Duke’s woman.”

The caveats I have with the relationship is that Trahaern and Mina’s resolution of these problems is too facile. Knowing this is a Romance, I can live with nearly motiveless attraction these two feel for each other from the get go and the whirlwind seduction that follows. What I have greater difficulty with is the contrivance that allows them to be together in the end. After building up such a complex world and the beginnings of a complex affair, it was disappointing that Brook resorted to such a measure. I hope she allows some complexity to return in the sequels. And, as I wrote above, I hope Brook pushes the Romantic envelope to near bursting in exploring the relationship - dare I hope that she lets it reach its logical, inevitable, tragic conclusion - ending badly?

Even if she doesn't, based upon my personal experience and the continued positive reviews from my GR Friends for book two (Heart of Steel), I’m going to continue to follow this tale.