|Meljean Brook takes a few chances with The Iron Duke, and they pay off magnificently, thanks to her clever writing and a bit of restraint. This book is an alternate-reality steampunk romance, with a heavy dose of nanotechnology, set in an England that somewhat resembles the Victorian age. For those willing to suspend belief and let themselves become submersed in the world the author has created, it's a riveting journey.
England suffered for hundreds of years under control of the technologically-advanced Horde (think Mongols), who had conquered all of Europe, Asia and Africa and subjected the people to terrible abuses. Most of the populace was infected with blood nanoagents that when activated allowed the Horde even more control, even to the point of setting off rampages of lust, called Frenzies, culminating in mass orgies. Wilhelmina Wentworth, our heroine, is the product of a Frenzied rape of her mother by a Horde. As a half-breed with Asian looks, she's scorned by most of the populace.
Mina is beloved by her family, however, who are impoverished nobility. Her father is a well-known physician and her mother is an inventor. When the story opens, Mina and her parents are attending a ball given by an ex-patriate whose family fled to the Colonies generations earlier. Since the Horde was driven out of England nine years earlier, many ex-pats have returned. Mina is no ordinary miss, however - she's a detective, and when she's called away mid-ball to investigate a murder, little does she know she'll end up at the estate of Rhys Trahaearn, Duke of Anglesey, known as the "Iron Duke." Trahaearn is the man who single-handedly destroyed the Horde's main power base in London, and he is England's most celebrated hero.
Rhys is quite intrigued with Mina, but they have a bigger problem to solve. The body appears to have been dropped from an airship, and it seems to be a warning. Rhys, a former pirate, knows of several people who would like to see him dead, and he's not the type to sit back and let someone else figure it out. Mina offers a number of intelligent insights, and soon Rhys and Mina are off on a quest that will take them to France and places beyond - places where the Horde still menace the people, zombies walk the land, and travel by airship and pirate ship is a necessity.
Rhys has a rather unsavory past, and his relationships have been based on sex. He is dumbfounded when Mina refuses to become his mistress and tells him off. There's an element of humor as he gradually begins to realize what she means to him, and that his usual methods won't work. And he has no idea what will work. Rhys spend the first half of the book doggedly pursuing his seduction of Mina and not really believing her when she tells him she wants no part of it. He sees the light before it gets too tedious, but it's a near thing. Rhys has his own secrets, too, which add interesting twists to the story. As they are revealed, it's easier to accept him and come to care about him.
Mina has a lot of emotional baggage. She has been ostracized by society all her life, and the knowledge that her own mother went temporarily insane and committed a horrific act of self-mutilation upon seeing the newborn Mina weighs heavily on her psyche. Through technology, her mother was made whole, but at a cost that is still being paid off by her family. Now the most famous man in England wants to be her lover. Though tempted, Mina knows that he'll be scorned if he gets involved with one such as herself. She remains dignified and intelligent throughout, and when she and Rhys finally do become lovers, readers will be happy for her. Her character is heartbreaking, and it's easy to root for her.
There is a host of intriguing secondary characters. One, the pirate captain Yasmeen, deserves her own story. Trahaearn's friend Scarsdale adds a few interesting twists, and there are others that may crop up in future books.
The story is complex and utterly engrossing, and the world-building is outstanding. Part of this success is due to the author's restraint when it comes to her descriptions. I've read steampunk before and it always seemed to be a sub-genre best suited to graphic novels rather than traditional fiction. Most of the contraptions found in steampunk are hybrids of early technology and steam power, such as the "steamcoaches" found in this story. Meljean Brooks succeeds so well with The Iron Duke because she gives just enough description for the reader to build a mental picture, rather than trying to cram her vision down the reader's throat. Coal miners whose legs have been removed and replaced with jackhammers? That's all I need to know to see it for myself, and she doesn't waste time belaboring the details.
A word about the nanotechnology. Some readers may find it hard to suspend belief on some of it. In Mina's world, artificial eyes with microscopic and telescopic vision can replace damaged eyes, but London is choked with coal smoke and only the blood-borne bugs allow the people to breathe. It seems that a society that could invent artificial vision could come up with a cleaner method of heating, and these paradoxes exist throughout the story.
The Iron Duke kept me reading long into the night, and stayed with me well after I'd finished it. This is an outstanding story that takes romance in a new direction. I'll be looking forward to the next book in this series.