A few years ago, I don’t think I was alone in being rather clueless about the subgenre of steampunk. There were a few young adult books I knew of that fell into this category, but I had pigeonholed them in my mind as being for the type of person who liked cosplay and that’s not really my scene. I made a point of collecting a few anthologies that had this subgenre as their focus, but didn’t pay more attention than that.
Big mistake. Upon further investigation, I discovered I love steampunk.
My first revelation was when I read Cassandra Clare‘s Clockwork Angel (the prequel to the Mortal Instruments series). Excuse me? Automatons? Clockworks? Corsets? Conflicted female gender roles? Sign. Me. Up.
Wanting to be reflective in the hope that it will clue me into other readers who might enjoy this subgenre, I think the following observations are in order regarding the reader group I have observed who really jones for these books:
- Steampunk readers seem to be made up of adventurous readers, usually ones who enjoy historical fiction, alternate history, science fiction, fantasy, historical romance, or all of the above. They aren’t the readers who bog down in one genre and stay there.
- Steampunk readers (at least in my library) are largely female and seem to revel in the many strong female characters.
- At the same time, those readers like the fact that there are some Victorian mores and REALLY enjoy the descriptions of the clothes and gadgets. (“Steampunk is…the love child of Hot Topic and a BBC costume drama.” – Gail Carriger, author of the steampunk The Parasol Protectorate series.)
When I looked at all these elements, it occurred to me that each of these points describe a lot of romance readers as well, so it makes sense that there would be some rather…well….adult romance books with a steampunk focus. Where the heck were they in 2009? *taps foot impatiently*
Enter Meljean Brook and The Iron Duke in 2010. As the rippling abs of the cover model indicate, this book has a racy side (a very racy side). That said, it is a fascinating and well-written steampunk novel with highly developed characters and a carefully constructed alternate history.
I will confess to being a little confused for the first 50 pages or so (my “give it 80 pages” rule usually pulls me through most books). Brook gives a terrific explanation of the alternate history she’s developed on her website but I’ve developed a nutshell version that might help other readers struggling as I did for that first bit of the book.
Stretch back to your World Civilization class in high school and you’ll remember the early relationship between Kublai Khan and western Europe, specifically how the Polo family traipsed East and established some valuable trade routes (okay, much of my memory comes from the 1982 miniseries Marco Polo and the subsequently released novel based on the screenplay. Whatever.) In Brook’s books, rather than maintain a political strategy of isolationism (as China did for some time), the “Horde” uses their advanced Chinese technology to develop machines which roll into Europe a couple hundred years post-Polo, and conquer it, enslaving its citizens.
The wealthy flee to the Americas (and are referred to derisively as “Bounders” by the people who lived under the Horde), a haven of safety since the Horde has never developed a navy, but the remaining Europeans lived in terror. Part of the Horde’s strategy was to enslave and alter the people under them with technology. Citizens were infected with nanotechnology (“bugs”) that can control their behavior if needed, and some laborers actually have tools grafted to their arms a la Star Trek’s Borg (think coal miners with drills for arms). Much of the European continent and Africa which was used by the Horde solely for its natural resources had a separate type of infection, creating thousands of zombies that run amuck through those areas keeping people away.
Even the most intimate details fall under Horde control – the working classes are forbidden to marry and the entire country is subject to periodic “Frenzies” where the Horde activates the nanotechnology to cause citizens to literally fall on one another in a massive heat, regardless of age, sexual orientation, or existing genetic relationship. The babies produced from this event are usually given to the Creche, a state-run orphanage, with those children (if they are lucky) given over to guilds where they receive specialized training and financial sponsorship to receive the physical enhancement they need to survive.
England manages to throw off the Horde’s control with the help of pirate Rhys Trahaearn, who destroys the tower that sends forth the signals which control the nanotechnology in each citizen, thus freeing the population. A grateful nation makes him the Duke of Anglesley, but he is shrouded in mystery and simultaneously loved and feared, becoming known simply as the Iron Duke to the people.
And this is where The Iron Duke begins. Enter our heroine, Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth, daughter of a countess who works (as many women do) but who constantly faces prejudice wherever she goes. Mina is the result of a particularly calculated “frenzy” as her mother was invited, along with the rest of British aristocracy, to a Horde-hosted ball when the frenzy instinct was activated. While her mother claims to remember nothing, Mina’s black hair and Eurasian features remind everyone she encounters of their time under Horde control, subjecting her to a great deal of verbal and physical abuse.
But Mina is tough (and she has a fabulous sidekick, Constable Newberry, who acts as a bodyguard as well as fellow investigator) and when she is dispatched to investigate a dead body found at the Iron Duke’s London home, she attempts to simply work the case. However, the instant attraction between them complicates an already puzzling investigation. The body has been frozen and dropped from an airship as some kind of message and together, Mina and the Duke need to figure out what really is going on, little realizing the physical and emotional countries this journey will take them through.
I loved this book not just as a steampunk novel but as a true romance novel. The relationship, while having a lot of steamy attraction, develops naturally and deals honestly with the barriers in its way. The emotional damage people suffer in the wake of the Horde’s rule are ever present and add an additional dimension to forming an intimate relationship.
And, hello, these are intimate! The sex scenes are “burst into flame in your hands” hot. The descriptive language is a little more ribald that many traditional historical romance readers would probably expect, but it seems right for both a pirate and for a country that has lived through its recent history. This book was so outstanding that I immediately ordered a used print copy in addition to my ebook copy so I can reread it at will.
There are a couple fabulous prequel novellas. In chronological order, the first is “The Blushing Bounder” (#0.4 in the Iron Seas series) found in the Wild & Steamy anthology. This is Constable Edward Newberry’s story (the red-headed giant who is Inspector Mina Wentworth’s faithful assistant and protector), specifically the tale of his marriage to another bounder from Manhattan City who is dying of consumption.
Edward knows that if Temperance agrees to the nanotechnology infection that Mina’s physician father is happy to provide, she will live, but bounder preconceptions (on the part of both of them) as well as some existing tension in their marriage prevent her from doing so. Edward won’t become infected unless Temperance does, so they both seemed doomed to suffer until Temperance witnesses a murder from her bedroom window and forces beyond their ontrol are set in motion.
You don’t need to read this novella prior to The Iron Duke (and, in fact, I’d encourage you to read it afterward) but there is another prequel which is a fabulous introduction to Meljean Brook’s world and it is also a wonderful stand-alone romance which gives you a sense of her excellent writing. “Here There Be Monsters” (#0.5 in the Iron Seas series) is published in the anthology Burning Up (which also has a Psy-Changeling novella if you’re a Nalini Singh fan like I am).
This novella is just as well-written as The Iron Duke and has several tie-ins, both in characters and in overarching plot, and you do not to need to read any previous book or novella to understand it. In a way it feels like a lighter book, simply because the two love interests, Captain Eben Machen (known as “Mad Machen”) and Ivy Blacksmith, are less tortured than Mina and Rhys (but still have their own set of obstacles).
Ivy Blacksmith is a genius with any machinery and is happy with her lot until a strange group of men sneak into her rooming house, utilizing a mysterious device which freezes all the inhabitants, stealing a few of them out of their beds, and reminding Ivy all too well of life under Horde rule. Terrified that she might be next, she runs to the inn where the pirate Mad Machen and his friends are boarding prior to shipping out.
Eben Machen has already fallen for the red-haired pixie blacksmith who so patiently helped his friend Barker weather the transition to his prosthesis, so when she comes to them, terrified and tentatively offering herself in exchange for passage on his ship, he accepts not only to slake his lust but to keep her safe from others. But his airship captain friend, Yasmeen, has a different idea of what is good for Ivy and Eben, and helps Ivy escape Machen’s room. He searches for her for two long years until the Iron Duke and the Blacksmith come up with a cunning plan to protect the Welsh coast and they need a talented machinist to execute it.
Ivy can’t believe her eyes when Yasmeen and Mad Machen show up in the isolated Norwegian town in which she’s made a home. Mad Machen insists she share his bed according to their original agreement but she pays him each night to not touch her. The problem is, not only is she’s running out of coins but laying next to his hard body and feeling his gentle hands holding her while she sleeps awakens a host of feelings that she might want to act upon. How can she reconcile the tales of this wild pirate to the man she is beginning to see with new eyes?
These two novellas definitely helped me be patient while awaiting the next full-length novel in Iron Seas series, but I was still chomping at the bit when Heart of Steel came out on November 1, 2011.
Yasmeen, airship Captain of the Lady Corsair, is not only one of the best airship captains out there but beautiful as well. She strikes terror into anyone who crosses her and is a true mercenary, willing to hire herself out for gold and not ask a lot of questions, but she has a code of honor to which she strongly adheres.
Which is why she is checking in on adventure writer, Archimedes Fox’s sister. Yasmeen feels a little guilty that she had to toss the handsome Archimedes overboard into zombie territory (in The Iron Duke) but she doesn’t feel that bad about keeping the priceless DaVinci sketch he brought on board – after all, no one pulls a gun on Yasmeen and tells her what to do with her ship.
But Archimedes is a like a cat with nine lives and turns back up looking for Yasmeen and his sketch, with Horde assassins close on his heels. Yasmeen doesn’t appreciate the trouble but she is interested in the wild passion that flares between them. The problem is Archimedes – he doesn’t just want sex, he wants her heart and her mind, and those are two items Yasmeen refuses to give to any man.
Yasmeen has always been an intriguing and compelling character with a wealth of secrets. The sexual tension between her and Archimedes is evident in the first book, so I was bouncing with excitement when I read this book was to be about them. Meljean Brook does not disappoint, fleshing out Yasmeen in all her glory and painting Archimedes as the sexy, playful beast he is. Where Rhys and Mina are all intense responsibility to others, Yasmeen and Archimedes have a wicked, devil-may-care side they share and it’s a joy to see their banter. The way Archimedes cajoles Yasmeen into admitting her feelings for him pulls on your heartstrings and its great to see Brook’s signature relationship – one of equals coming together and loving each other exactly as they are – in play.
After rereading these novels and novellas for the last couple years, it’s wonderful to finally anticipate a few new additions to the series! Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City is an enovella coming out on August 7, 2012 (although purportedly also in the reprinted paperback edition of The Iron Duke, so you could get it that way, too).
Taking place eight months after their marriage, this novella is categorized as an “epilogue novella” by Meljean Brook, and centers on a dead bounder. Mina is the primary investigator and becomes deeply concerned when the danger surrounding the death points back to her new husband. I cannot believe I have to wait for August for this! It makes me want to get a third copy of The Iron Duke in the mass market paperback so I can read it now. Patience. *deep breath* Patience.
Now we have the pleasure of anticipating the third book in the series, which will be published on September 4th. Riveted deals with two characters with whom we have not been previously introduced and seems to also plan on broadening our horizons on the world of the Iron Seas.
Iceland has been abandoned due to a massive volcanic eruption and everyone thinks it was a natural phenomenon, but the truth has a more mechanical origin. Annika and her sister Kalla were part of a community of women who guarded the secret, but after Annika accidentally endangered the secret, her sister Kalla took the blame and was exiled. Annika serves aboard an airship, searching for Kalla in the hope they can one day return home.
David Kentewess chases volcanos for a living and is focused on ferreting out the truth of what happened in Iceland – a process that is bound to involve getting the lovely Annika to reveal her secrets. The process places them both in danger, however, abandoned on a glacier with a madmen in pursuit. Now they must get away while dealing with the attraction between them, no easy feat in the world of the Iron Seas.
I read the excerpt posted on Meljean’s website and it was fantastic! I’m so happy to be getting more of a New World perspective (previously only glimpsed briefly in Constable Newberry’s “The Blushing Bounder” novella) and this one promised to be much better fleshed out.
It’s rare to find an author who is as talented at complex world-building as she is in building an honest to God romance between two people, but Meljean Brook is the real deal. Her blog is full of information and she seems to have a terrific sense of humor in her entries, so I would strongly recommend adding her to your RSS reader if you enjoy following authors. Remember that while other authors (like Cindy Spencer Pape who I enthusiastically reviewed the other week) are more gaslight because of their incorporation of magic in their world, Brook is classic steampunk, and can be counted on to give any reader an excellent introduction to the genre. Be warned, though. You might find yourself addicted to it!
Interested in exploring steampunk further? Check out the GoodReads list of “Best Steampunk Books” list for a place to start. The Steamed! blog is also a great source of information for both readers and writers and has innumerable links to reading lists and writing tips. Enjoy your foray into this wonderful genre!
**Additional Notes and Updates:
Take a look at the review of Brook’s third book in the series, Riveted, as well as the fantastic follow up to Heart of Steel, the novella, Tethered, featuring the further adventures of Yasmeen and Archimedes. For a hint of Yasmeen’s airship, the novella in Fire & Frost cannot be beat either. Enjoy!!**