Tag Archives: Alternate history

Countdown to Christmas: Steampunk Blends with the Holiday in A Clockwork Christmas

12 Dec

A Clockwork Christmas edited by Angela James (Carina Press, December 5, 2011) featuring novellas by J. K. Coi, P. G. Forte, Stacy Gail and Jenny Schwartz.

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I love steampunk romance. Whether I’m raving about how Meljean Brook is the best introduction to steampunk or qvelling over the gaslight overtones of Cindy Spencer Pape, corsets, clockworks and romance float my boat.

But finding other great steampunk or gaslight authors is challenging (there are a lot of writers who sound like they should still be on a fan fiction site honing their skills a little longer before finding a publisher), and anthologies are one of the best ways to taste the flavor of a new author without committing to a longer book to see if they pull off the genre. I’m pleased to say that Carina Press editor Angela James has worked her usual (gaslight?) magic to find a roster of authors up to the task in A Clockwork Christmas.

James has her usual friendly introduction to the anthology and I was interested in hearing how she has had a personal interest in steampunk since before it penetrated the world of romance fiction. I found it reassuring when she excerpted her own recent letter to ComicCon attendees when she said, “Maybe being a geek has become trendy, but at Carina, we’re not just interested in trendy; we’re interested in publishing great, compelling, readable stories.”

Selecting these four stories because of how they work together, James nevertheless indicated that she was overwhelmed by how many excellent steampunk stories she received after Carina expressed an interest in the genre. Many of them were independently published by the ebook publishing house this past year and seem to be of novella length for the most part. As with other anthologies I’ve read from Carina, you can buy this compilation as either the anthology (linked above to title) or as individual ebooks (linked below in the title of each individual story).

Crime Wave in a Corset by Stacy Gail

I fell for Stacy Gail’s writing the other week when I drooled all over her science fiction novella How the Glitch Saved Christmas. She keeps up her writing streak of awesomeness with this story, set in a nineteenth century Boston rife with clockworks.

Crime Wave in a Corset by Stacy Gail (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

Cornelia Peabody is a loner and thief, but she’s content with her life of relative success. The fact that she limits herself to stealing from companies or organizations rather than individuals gives her some peace at night. As she walks through Beacon Hill days before Christmas, she realizes her home has been broken into as one of her careful alarms has been tripped. Being a thief herself, she’s not about to call the police, but she carefully uses her surveillance equipment inside the foyer to see if anything looks amiss. Deciding it doesn’t look dangerous, she still takes precautions to check on her office – where she is pounced upon by a large man in black who knows her name and her crimes. He obviously hates her, but she doesn’t know why.

Professor Roderick Coddington is elated he finally has the monster responsible for murdering his sister in his grasp…and he’s angry that she’s so beautiful and that his body clearly wants her. Ignoring its demands, he slaps a special clockwork bracelet on her that she cannot remove and then takes her to his workshop to see exactly what it can do. An electrocution device, the bracelet is set on countdown for seven days; either Cornelia Peabody steals back the Faberge egg that she took from Roderick’s sister, the loss of which sped her demise, or she dies a horrible death in one week.

It’s not much a of choice, so Cornelia does it, trying to deny to herself that it hurts to be hated by this man who doesn’t even know her. The more time they spend together, the more their illusions shatter. Roderick is capable of emotions other than anger (quite compelling ones) and Cornelia has a strong sense of honor despite being a thief. Her intellect and ability amaze him and once he sees the scars that cover her body from the nightmare childhood that led her to her profession, he begins to realize that nothing is as simple as he would like to make it. The final job of stealing back the egg causes them both to confront the past, leaving the reader to wonder if their choices will be different, at least different enough to allow for a future between these two lovers.

Smoking hot love scenes and the ability to capture powerful emotions make Stacy Gail’s story a standout. As in her science fiction story, she has the ability to layer the world-details, many of which are highly technical, in such a smooth fashion that you don’t realize the amount of information you are swallowing, you just know that the rich details of the place and time period are truly alive. As with any couple in an extraordinary situation, Cornelia and Roderick’s descent into lust and then love, is so believably written that your feelings transmute along with theirs, until you are pulling so hard for them to work through their issues that you cheer at the ending!

This Winter Heart by PG Forte

Ophelia Winter has been left destitute by her father’s death. With the war between the states ended and the Confederacy triumphant, his inventions, which could have helped the Union cause, were left unfunded. The person who refused to fund them was none other than Ophelia’s husband, Dario Leonides, due to the fact that her father chose to reveal that Ophelia was one of those inventions – a sophisticated automaton whose blood and flesh were formed from the raw material from her father and his dead mistress. As neither Ophelia or Professor Winter ever revealed her nature, Dario felt betrayed by them both, determining that as a machine, Ophelia was incapable of returning the love he felt for her.

This Winter Heart by P.G. Forte (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

Ophelia was and is totally in love with Dario, and understands why he felt betrayed but it was no excuse to throw back the dedication and love she felt for him when he asked her to leave his home and his life. Seven years later, she’s back in Santa Fe and needing Dario’s help. She has to find a way to support herself and her son with Dario, a son he doesn’t know exists.

Naturally Dario is stunned and disbelieving at the thought that Ophelia had his child. Her father was very clear that he felt she couldn’t have children. But the boy Arthur resembles them both with winning ways that begin to open Dario’s very closed heart. Even while his body wants Lia, he tells himself and her she has no soul and is just a “thing,” a cruelty that Ophelia cannot overlook. When the tension between them comes to a head, the situation endangers Arthur, and Ophelia reacts with the maternal instinct to save her child, a reaction that could cost the family their only chance at finding happiness.

I’m not a fan of second chance romance, particularly not when one of the couple acts like a jerk, and Dario fits this bill. It’s a credit to author Forte that she makes very clear Dario’s mental block – he was so appalled at being lied to by two people who he trusted and loved that he just shut off the part of him that loved Lia. Using his religious background to excuse his behavior (a “thing” cannot feel pain or love), he also uses it to explain why he hasn’t divorced her all these years. Most importantly, he has no excuse for his reluctance to divulge her secret, other than his long-denied feelings for her. They both know she would be captured and experimented upon if anyone found out what she is, and Ophelia clings to this one gesture of compassion.

But it’s hard to fall for a hero who acts like an utter prick for two-thirds of the story, even when you know his motivation. While the cataclysmic event that almost takes Arthur and Lia from him turns Dario around and he works to help her realize he’s changed, I’m not sure it’s enough for me (although it’s beautifully written). Forte’s writing is truly excellent, so I think this is really my problem with not being able to forgive a hero/heroine who acts so abominably toward another human being.

Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz

This was an extremely sweet story (the hero and heroine don’t even kiss in this novella, it’s so in keeping with its time period) set in a rapidly growing steampunk Australia in 1895. Esme Smith is the daughter of a successful inventor who has raised her to be independent and determined in all her endeavors. Right now, she needs a scoundrel, a charming, good-looking man she can hire to inflitrate the exclusive mens’ clubs where politics are discussed. You see, Esme is a suffragette looking to lobby for the vote for women in her young country. Luckily, her uncle, a captain, has just docked and says he has a likely candidate for her on board.

Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

Jedediah Reeve takes one look at the golden-haired beauty in the Captain’s cabin and is more than happy to do anything she wants. He’s even more impressed when she outlines her political machinations; not only does he agree with her, but he also can see her motivation comes from her own sincerity and belief in her cause rather than a bid for personal power. Laughing inside at the thought of being taken for a scoundrel when his family thinks he’s the most boring one of the bunch, he shakes her hand and looks forward to spending more time with her as she coaches him in key talking points.

But Esme has a nemesis in the form of one Nicholas Bambury the Third (what a perfectly pompous name!) who not only wants to use his good looks to court Esme but happens to spout the opposite political agenda at these mens’ clubs where Esme can’t enter. Jed hates him on sight, an instinct only amplified as Bambury’s suit for Esme’s hand becomes apparent, and when Bambury attempts to bully Esme into marrying him, Jed is ready to defend her honor.

Esme is a caring, managing female who has met her match in Jed. Rather than a typical alpha male, Jed revels in Esme’s personality and assists her while making it clear he’s doing what he wants rather than having her direct his every move. Schwartz has a rather expository writing style, with characters filling in a certain amount of backstory. Her strength is the ability to evoke a strong sense of place, with her description playing on all the senses until you can literally see and smell Australia in front of you. The steampunk aspect is natural and unforced and Jed’s real profession of invention offers a conduit to explaining the clockworks and machinery he encounters. My personal taste is for a lot more sexual heat, but this is a lovely story in a setting I truly enjoyed.

Far From Broken by JK Coi

Far From Broken (Seasons of Invention #1) by J. K. Coi (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

I was trepidatious about tackling yet another second chance romance when they are not my preference, but I was pleasantly surprised to find J. K. Coi’s writing so compelling that I was immediately sucked into this story. Lord Jasper Carlisle (Colonel Carlisle) has had his secret life as a spy come crashing around him. Upon returning home after a disastrous mission, he discovers that his young, vivacious wife, the prima ballerina Calliandra, has been kidnapped from their home. With the help of a few loyal servants and friends, he finds her, horribly tortured and barely alive in a nearby hunting cabin. Having known the military has advanced technology that can help repair massive injuries, Jasper takes Callie to them, agreeing to any price to save her. When her excruciating screams indicate that his presence is not helping, he leaves to track down the three men responsible for torturing her, ensuring their demise is just as painful as what they did to his beloved wife.

Callie is horrified to awaken and see heavy iron limbs with clockwork mechanisms in place of the feet and legs she has danced on all her life. Her iron hand and gunmetal gray eye also appear alien despite the realization that they work better than their predecessors. Sitting more heavily on her spirit than her heinous modifications is the fact that her torture and resurrection are a result of the lies her husband told her – she never knew he was a spy working for the military. When he returns to face her, accepting the blame for her misfortune completely and allowing her to heap the guilt of their situation upon his shoulders, she finds herself confused. Jasper is behaving like he is still in love with her, despite her transmutation into a dark creature when compared to the sunny woman she used to be.

Broken Promises (Seasons of Invention #2) by J. K. Coi (Carina Press, September 10, 2012)

Determined to show Callie that he is still profoundly in love with her, perhaps more so as her strength and inner beauty has become more visible, Jasper is determined to prove himself and let her decide what’s next for their relationship. But his courting of his own wife takes a sudden turn upon an attempt on their life, a bid for assassination which reveals a much more sinister twist in the circumstances of Lord and Lady Carlisle.

WOW. I’m overjoyed to realize that this is actually the first of a series (Seasons of Invention) starring Jasper and Callie because there is no way just one novella is going to cut it with these two people. Jasper is honorable and tortured and Callie demonstrates how a woman can be strong and vulnerable at the same time in her situation. Because of Callie’s modifications, the military now has a claim to her as an agent, a fact which appalls Jasper who thought his bargain was any price the military wanted from him. Callie has a sense of how powerful she is now and part of her newfound outlook on life is that she wants no secrets between her and Jasper. While he still wants to protect her every chance she gets, she’s no longer a delicate flower to be protected, and she forces him to renegotiate their marriage with this in mind.

I think what blew me away the most was the fantastic and very sinister world our hero and heroine live in. Technological adaptations have occurred which make this world a dirty one with people separated into have and have-nots regarding enjoying the benefits of scientific progress. The mysterious and menacing General Black, head of the spy ring for which Jasper and now Callie work, has a story arc within him that I’m eager to read more about. This couple is also not lacking in the hot and heavy department, adding a sexual heat to their marital power dynamics. A nice roster of secondary characters make this a series I will be reading, for sure.

I have to give a major shoutout to the cover designers at Carina Press – I honestly think this was the best grouping of covers I’ve seen in a couple of years. Not only are they beautiful and rich looking, but the accurate level of detail (down to the appearance of the models or the small presence of key story features like the balloon that endangers Lia in This Winter Heart or the map of Australia and the kangaroo in Wanted: One Scoundrel) was astonishing. The cover of the anthology did not disappoint either, with the frosted design of the goggles and the bright red balloon clearly indicating the holiday with a bit of steampunk twist.

This was a fantastic anthology that clued me in to more than a few authors of the genre who I’m going to have to follow. Many thanks to Carina Press and Angela James for compiling such a great collection that will get steampunk lovers’ internal clockworks all warm and fuzzy. 🙂

Riveted by Meljean Brook Sustains the Iron Seas Reputation as the Best Steampunk Series

11 Oct

Riveted (Book #3 in The Iron Seas Series) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, September 4, 2012)

I think my deep-seated admiration for Meljean Brook as the premier steampunk author to whom I compare all newcomers to the genre is quite clear, and the latest addition to the Iron Seas series, Riveted, guarantees her street rep is totally intact.

Whereas the first two books in the series, The Iron Duke and Heart of Steel, are definitely interconnected to one another, a reader could read Riveted with merely an introduction to Brook’s world, best understood by her background essay on the alternate history she employs.

In Riveted, we meet Annika Fridasdotter (Icelandic translation literally “Frida’s daughter”), an engineer on Captain Vashon’s airship (another female airship captain with an excellent reputation – previous books have referred to her prowess). Dressed in outlandishly bright silks, Annika is making her way through a teeming port city back to her ship when she is accosted by an overzealous guard bent on proving she has fraudulent papers. She does, but it’s not because she’s an enemy, but rather carries Norwegian papers to hide her Icelandic origins. Not speaking Castilian, Annika is almost carted away, but for the intervention of David Kentewess.

While the guard is intimated by David’s monocle eye and visible steel hand and arm and backs off, Annika, ever curious, is fascinated by David, and her attraction only increases when she discovers he is a vulcanologist. She would love to know why someone would study something as dangerous as volcanos but sadly realizes that she must get back to her ship. Annika can’t shake the feeling that David has an agenda in helping her and that the intensity of his questioning indicates more than the typical interest between a man and a woman.

The UK cover for Riveted, where the heroine pictured is MUCH closer is appearance to the actual description of Annika, who has mysterious origins. It always makes me uncomfortable when a publisher chooses an image that makes one of the characters look “whiter” than they are described in the book. Be careful, Berkley Publishing!

Her gut instinct is dead accurate. David’s attention was captured not just by Annika’s clothing and good looks, but also by the fact that when trying to communicate with the bureaucratic port official, she ran through a gamut of languages, including the very rare Norsk. David hadn’t heard that language since his mother, a mysterious woman who never revealed where she was from to her beloved husband and son, died in the same violent volcanic explosion that took David’s eye, arm and both his legs.

Charged twenty years ago with taking his mother’s rune-carved necklace back to her homeland for burial, he has attempted to discover the location of her birthplace, and at last he has a clue, in Annika, who speaks with the same accent and phrases David remembers from his childhood. Thankfully his latest expedition is using Vashon’s airship for transportation to Iceland, so David and Annika are thrown together and the mutual attraction amplifies.

But Annika’s secret is an important one. She is out in the world away from the isolated Icelandic village she grew up in for a reason. Her sister, Kalla, was exiled for a mistake Annika made and Annika vowed to her village elders (after confessing it was her error) that she would find her sister before returning home.

Her village must be hidden from the larger world, as it is comprised solely of women, women who, generations ago, decided to honor what they felt was a sign from God that they were meant to live and love each other. They continue their numbers by choosing to either go abroad and adopt orphan girls or to lie with men who will take the infant if it’s a boy, but hopefully gain a daughter and return back to the village. David’s mother was one of the women who fell in love and chose to stay with her husband and son.

Iceland is not only renowned for its beauty, but for the amazing power of the many volcanos that exist in it, which fuel the natural hot springs all over the island

The previous heroes and heroines in this series have been what I would term “edgy,” often having experienced extreme personal adversity and with at least one person in the pair being sexually experienced. Riveted takes a new angle with its H/h both being relatively innocent from and love and sex standpoint. David has dealt with revulsion from women regarding his artificial enhancements and actually paid for sex twice in his life, although he couldn’t bring himself to fruition in the face of his partner’s disinterest or outright revulsion. Annika is a true romantic, virgin and waiting for the right person, woman or man, with whom to lose her virginity. In fear of her rejection, David initially leads Annika to believe he has no romantic or sexual interest in her, but when the going gets tough, finally caves and lets her know his true feelings. The building romance between them is breathtaking and magical.

Meljean Brook’s writing is, as it always is, beautiful and evocative. Every sentence has been crafted with care and her plotlines are watertight, letting the reader feel the delicious sense of anticipation and the wonder of true closure at the story’s conclusion. But where she excels is in the crafting of her characters. My mother and I spoke about this one to one another and mom said, that while she enjoyed the book tremendously, the beginning of the book felt slower to her than the other books in the Iron Seas series. I think she’s right, but it’s an excellent, calculated move by a talented writer.

Brook knows she must set up a side of her world that readers have never seen before. We are not in the world of England and the post-tower destruction, but are instead more immersed in the part of the world which did not live under Horde rule. As always she makes me fall for her world along with her characters. Annika and David are adventurous, well-matched, and with fascinating personal backgrounds which intersect with their worlds in ways that had me eagerly turning the page.  Riveted is aptly named, because it easily described my demeanor while reading it.

Kathryne Kennedy’s Enchanting the Lady Not Worth the Updated Cover

1 Aug

I remember having a conversation with my mother years ago about how we hate it when publishers reissue covers. Most readers are very visual when remembering books they’ve read, picturing a distinct cover. There is nothing more crushing than picking up what you think is the latest Nora Roberts novel, only to get it home and realize after 20 pages that you read it years ago.

Updating covers are a great idea, however, when the original covers are either extremely dated (think Fabio-esque bodice ripper cover) or just plain suck (we all remember my rant about the great Midnight series from Lisa Marie Rice and how I think those covers devalue a classic romantic suspense trilogy), but publishers need to be careful the public doesn’t think you’re either a) snowing them into buying books they’ve already read or b) trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The Fire Lord’s Lover (#1 The Elven Lords series, Dominic and Cassandra’s story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, 2010)

When I saw that Sourcebooks, a company who states as part of their mission a firm commitment to promoting each author in their stable, had a “new” Kathryne Kennedy book, I was pretty psyched. After all, her fantasy/alternate history romance, The Fire Lord’s Lover, was hands down the best fantasy romance novel I read last year. I adored Dominic, the half-breed bastard son of the evil Elven Lord, who had learned to control his emotions out of necessity. His father had tortured and killed anyone who Dominic ever cared for, so when he marries Lady Cassandra, a human with no apparent Elven traits, the passion between them is a shock for them both. Particularly for Cassandra as her marriage of convenience is actually the excuse for a suicide mission for the Rebellion since she is a trained assassin bent on killing the Elven Lord. Great couple, awesome world building, lots of unexpected twists, happiness as a reader ensues.

Except that the series didn’t really keep up its momentum for me. The two subsequent books focus on other couples supporting the rebellion and possessing specialized traits that enable them to fight the evil Elven Lords. But while I was being told that Lady Cecily and her champion Giles were falling for each other in the second book, The Lady of the Storm, I never really saw it (although I liked them both). The world building still held me, so I decided to keep plugging away and bought the third book, The Lord of Illusion, direct from Sourcebooks.

The Lady of the Storm (#2 Elven Lords series – Cecily and Giles story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, August 1, 2011)

At which point I became uber-pissed and the top of my head flew off. This third book in the series takes place 50 years after The Fire Lord’s Lover, which is fine, particularly since everybody seems long-lived, but there’s a big, pink elephant in the room and it’s going rogue. You see, there are seven Elven Lords to defeat and with three books, I’ve only read about three of them. Not a huge problem, except we meet all the other couples who have stolen the magical scepters, undermining the Elven despots, and hear peripherally about their adventures, but I’m not getting the whole story here. And then Kennedy wraps the series up and solves the problems.

Um, what?! Did Sourcebooks renege on the other books so Kennedy put out the last one? I can’t imagine after reading how the whole world solves its problems we’re going to have other books in the series, and I guess since neither of the subsequent two were anywhere near as good as the first one that’s okay, but I’m not thrilled with having everything tied up with a bow for me. People, don’t introduce a zillion characters when I’m never going to get their stories. So not okay.

So I was disgruntled (to say the least) about the Elven Lords series not living up to the potential of the first book in the series (which honestly is so good that I reread it every couple of months). This made for ripe fodder when I saw Sourcebooks was reissuing Kennedy’s Relics of Merlin series and that the first book, originally published in 2008, Enchanting the Lady, was coming out in August.

The Lord of Illusion (#3 Elven Lords series – Camille and Drystan’s story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, February 7, 2012)

But I’ve stopped hoping that any of Kennedy’s books will live up to my favorite. Enchanting the Lady has a very cool premise. Fulfilling a gaslight craze (maybe the reason Sourcebooks reissued it?), the book is set in an England in which magic is an accepted fact of the aristocracy, to the point that you can’t inherit an estate without it. The only nobles looked down upon are the class of baronet since they are shapeshifters who can see through magic and are self-appointed protectors of the crown.

Felicity Seymour is used to being invisible. Her looks aren’t anything worthy of notice, she’s an orphan set to inherit a big estate, but the only problem is she can’t. She didn’t inherit any magic from her parents so she has no dowry to attract a husband. After the public humiliation of her magical failure in front of the court to so much as light a candle, she knows she’ll have to rely on the largesse of her aunt and uncle and obnoxious cousin.

Terence Blackwell, baronet and werelion is astonished that no one seems to notice the stunningly beautiful Lady Felicity when she comes for her magic test in front of the Prince of Wales. The only problem is that she smells like the dangerous relic magic that took his brother’s life and that Terence is committed to hunting down. The relics place the crown in danger and he’s sworn to give his life to finding them. When the opportunity presents itself to court Felicity and discover if she’s a traitor, he’s all too willing to do it. What starts off as a lie rapidly becomes the truth as he falls for her, but will her fragile emotions and new self-confidence withstand the knowledge of his betrayal?

Enchanting the Lady (the original 2008 cover)

This book should have been amazing – alternate history/gaslight with a vibrant England populated with magic users and shapeshifters combined with the mores and clothes we love about historical romance. The plot device of dangerous relics left over from the time of Merlin ties in a very English story idea, but the book sadly suffers from the same complaint as the second and third book in the Elven Lords series. Two great characters but there is a lot of declaring feelings without a greater demonstration of why those two people are falling for each other. I loved Terence and Felicity both (particularly Terence when he was giving into his lion instincts of crowding and marking Felicity) but why are they into each other again? It seems like mostly chemistry – maybe if she showed a little more chutzpah with her obviously evil and magic sucking relatives, I might have seen what Terence clearly saw in her.

So here’s the thing. How I can I recommend a full price reissue of this book with the snazzy new cover from Sourcebooks, when you can buy the exact same book with a decent cover on it for a pittance used on Amazon? It’s a fun read, but not one good enough to exhort you to buy full price. This is a library check out or used book purchase for sure. Now The Fire Lord’s Lover, on the other hand, is totally worth a full price purchase and it’s got used paperbacks aplenty available! This book is a reasonable paranormal romance but failed at enchanting this lady.

So You Want a Good Steampunk Romance?: Try the Best – The Iron Seas Series By Meljean Brook

13 Jun

The Iron Duke (Iron Seas #1) by Meljean Brook (Berkley Sensation, October 5, 2010)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Steampunk readers (at least in my library) are largely female and seem to revel in the many strong female characters.
  3. 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.

Wild & Steamy (an anthology containing Iron Seas #0.4 “The Blushing Bounder” – Constable Newberry’s story) by Meljean Brook, et. al. (2011)

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.

Burning Up (containing the novella “Here There Be Monsters” – #0.5 in the Iron Seas series) by Meljean Brook, et. al. (Berkley, August 2010)

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?

Heart of Steel (Iron Seas #2 – Yasmeen and Archimedes story) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, November 1, 2011)

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.

Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City (Iron Seas #1.5) by Meljean Brook (Penguin, August 7, 2012)

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.

Riveted (Iron Seas #3) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, September 4, 2012)

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!!**

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