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Rhys Treahearne, otherwise known as the Iron Duke, is a national hero after freeing England from the cruel and oppressive rule of the Horde. Since then, he's become not only a political force to be reckoned with but also a very wealthy merchant trading across the world and living in seclusion in his fortress home. When a dead body dropped from a passing airship is found in the grounds of that home, Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth is sent to investigate. What she encounters, apart from a very dead body, is an arrogant man who does not want any interference from the police. Once she discovers the identity of the body, however, Mina's investigation takes on a more sinister aspect and before long she's flying off in Rhys Treahearne's airship in an attempt to bring the guilty to justice and save the freedom of everybody in England.
I'm a fairly recent convert to the wonderful world of steampunk, a sub-genre which is a sort of mash up of action and adventure, science fiction, fantasy and alternative history with additional elements from various other genres depending on the author. This amalgamation of genres usually makes for a highly original and entertaining read with no two books ever being the same.
The name of Meljean Brook appears on several lists of must-read steampunk novels, something of a surprise as her name is more often linked with romantic fiction and pretty cheesy paranormal romance at that. As a consequence, though The Iron Duke is often up at the top of several recommendation lists, I didn't bother to investigate further but when I spotted the book in a charity shop for 50p, I decided to give it a go, despite the rather lurid cover of a semi-clad couple with the only sop to steampunk being that they both clothed in leather apparel and wearing googles. I wasn't expecting great things but how wrong can a person be? Instead of a cheesy romance what I discovered was a rollicking adventure in a richly described fantasy world which drew me in from the very first page. Amazingly, an author of rather lurid paranormal romances has pulled off just about the perfect steampunk novel.
The world Meljean Brook has created is a quasi Regency-come-Victorian England with the same strict societal rules coupled with an alternative historical back story. The Horde are a race who swept across the continent of Europe enslaving and contaminating all the peoples in their path. Britain being an island was the last land to be overrun which gave some aristocrats time to escape across the Atlantic to America where they continued to live a similar lifestyle only returning once the Horde had been beaten back. Those unfortunate enough to come under the rule of the Horde, however, endured great hardships including rape and torture and infection by nano-technology as a means of control. The Horde have now been beaten back to mainland Europe by rebels led by Rhys by the start of the story but their legacy remains.
Although it isn't ever spelled out clearly, I took it that the Horde was akin to the Mongols of Ghengis Khan. Mina is the result of her mother having been raped by the Horde and although she's acknowledged as his daughter by her aristocratic father and her mother, her Horde heritage can be found not only in the nanos in her blood but also in her eyes. Mina makes a great female protagonist. As a result of her mixed race, she's treated with great disdain and prejudice by most of the population but she has enough strength of character to rise above this, despite the hurt she feels, and she has forged a career in the police of which she is justifiably proud.
The Iron Duke, too, makes an excellent lead and he's not a million miles from the original hero of Waterloo. This Duke, however, is in turn hero, pirate and enigma. He's a wealthy and powerful man who prefers to deal with matters in his own way rather than involve the authorities but Mina won't be shaken off and Rhys finds her very attractive and he's determined to get her into his bed and make her his mistress. She, however, proves rather unwilling and is concentrating all her efforts on solving the murder case.
As Meljean Brook has previously concentrated her writing in the romance genre, I would have expected this book to be heavy on the romantic elements but it isn't. In fact, she injects absolutely the right amount of sexual tension into the story without tipping it over into a full blown romance and that, balanced by the action and adventures undertaken in this amazingly complex world she's created makes for just about the perfect steampunk novel. I loved it so much I could hardly bear to put it down and was counting the minutes until I could pick the book up again.
The plot flows effortlessly with a murder and a political mystery at its heart and the reader is drip-fed little clues throughout with a few red herrings here and there to keep them guessing. But this book has everything else besides, from weird science to zombies, and it's all utterly believable because of the great world building. Not only did I love this book, it also changed my opinion of its author.
OK, I've probably gone a little bit OTT in my praise of this novel but if you want to understand what the steampunk genre truly is all about, this is the book to demonstrate it in all its glory. It manages to encompass elements from practically every literary genre except poetry and does so in such an entertaining way. It's an easy read and I suppose is best summed up as a fairytale for grown ups.
This is the first book in the Iron Seas series and if the others are even half as good, they'll be well worth reading. For me this was my favourite read of 2012 and I'm expecting great things from this series if book one is anything to go by.
The Iron Duke is available in paperback and Kindle format and used copies can be bought from 1p. You'll never spend a better penny!