“The Iron Duke” – Meljean Brook

I am desperate…..for some steampunk. Steam-powered gadgets, gun-weilding ladies in corsets, gentlemen in tailored suits beating up villains, afternoon tea — what’s not to love??

A search of the local public library catalogue brought this book to my attention. I didn’t look at the classification or reviews; I was that desperate.

Consequently, I read my first paranormal romance. And I learned that “romance” is merely code for “story line built around lots of gratuitous sex.” As you can tell, I am new to the romance genre. Like most people, I thought the romance genre is a lesser form of literature. Do I still think this? One book is hardly enough to judge an entire genre, and there will be exceptions to every rule. Let me put it this way: will I read another romance book, or one by Brook? Unlikely.

I believe that Brooks made the mistake of combining steampunk with romance. The world of Victorian England with difference engines, steam-powered locomotives, and armoured corsets is a fantasy world. Fantasy worlds need care. They need to be tenderly built, brick by brick, and savoured for the depth of history and imagination they offer. Fantasy and sci-fi is difficult to do well because the writer is introducing the reader to a whole new world. And like anyone who has traveled, being plunked down where the clothing, language, food, and atmosphere are completely different can be overwhelming. The biggest difference is that if a reader is overwhelmed, they don’t continue reading. A traveler needs to negotiate this new world to survive or leave it. If they’re smart, they’ll get themselves a guide.

What do tried and true fantasy novels have? A protagonist that is entering the world for the first time; they are the reader’s guide. Readers walk the journey with Frodo Baggins, we hitchhike across the universe with Arthur Dent. “The Iron Duke” really needed a guide. Brook, instead, plunks us down with someone who has grown up in this world, knows everything about it, and dumps background and history in heaps with the temptation of sex to drive the story forward. Does the sex have purpose? Yes, but it takes a while to figure out what that purpose is. And if something like lots of gratuitous sex has a place in the protagonist’s character arc, I believe the purpose of that should be somehow expressed -prominently – sooner rather than later. And this is why I came away from Brook’s novel thinking that the inspirational idea driving this novel was: what if a woman had grown up being raped and controlled and then was released? How would she cope? How would she heal? Hence, the book was based around the pages-long sex scenes, most of which are ‘good’ rape scenes. (Aside: the review on Amazon.com entitled “The ‘good’ rape” does a great job of describing what this is. I found it fascinating that more reviewers didn’t pick up on this aspect of the novel. Maybe it’s like why teenage girls are enamoured by the Twilight series instead of horrified by the thought being stalked by a vampire. Oh, the psychology of it all!).

However, Brook did pose an interesting world. If you’re into info dumps and history lessons, you can get through this.

If you’ve read some great (and genuine) steampunk, please let me know! Steampunk novels I’ve read include:

  • Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy (the series with Sally Lockhart is good too)
  • Ballantine & Morris’ Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series (only two books so far)
  • Catherine Webb, “The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle” is lots of fun (it’s YA)
  • Gail Carriger’s “Soulless” series combines vampires, werewolves, et al with steampunk
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