Chapter 1: Cool Britannia!
This book begins with a bang…particularly if by “bang” we mean a hand grenade filled with tiny bits of exposition. There’s a lot of ground to cover in seventeen pages, but Meljean Brook runs the route with a solid pace, and she takes time to set the mood while she’s at it. I’m enjoying the book so far.
Where are we? It’s London, at some unspecified steam-powered time in the speculative past. Coal-fueled cars compete with spidery rickshaws in the city streets, airships make regular rounds between Britain and the Continent, and nanotech-enhanced buggers compete with the recently-returned-from-the-New-World bounders for a slice of the smog-covered pie. It doesn’t get much cooler than this gadget-filled steampunky London that never was. (I promise to never again write a sentence with so many hyphens.)
Our story opens at a fashionable ball thrown by the Marchioness of Hartington. Our heroine, Mina Wentworth, trades bons mots with her preggo friend Felicity, veritably spewing exposition. The short version? I’ll give it a shot.
Two hundred years before our book takes place, the Horde ran roughshod over the Continent. Britain’s navy protected it from Horde invasion, but those pesky water-hating Hordelings secreted nano-agents into the sugar that’s shipped to the island. Once they were sure every last bugger (yes, that’s a technical term for those infected with the nanobots) in Britain had had their fill of sticky sweets (they taste so good because they’re made by food scientists), the Hordelings activated the nanoagents, bringing the British under their thrall. No wonder the British in our book trust only the sugar made from their very own British beets. [Insert obligatory Dwight K. Schrute joke here.]
Meanwhile, scores of Brits, known by the locals as bounders, made their way over the ocean to the New World, escaping the Horde’s clutches and eating their fill of sugary snacks. “I can differentiate a foreigner from a bugger just by opening his mouth,” Mina proclaims on page 5. Having made a mess of the New World (Manhattan City and Prince George Island are now overrun with bounders), the New Worlders are coming back. Relatively well-off, but unable to cope with the smog-filled city air without the help of the nanobots that are now the buggers’ friends (more on that in a moment), the bounders have taken to infecting themselves intentionally with the little bots. Good times.
But I get ahead of myself…what’s happened to the Horde? The British savior came in the form of The Iron Duke, Rhys Trahaearn. Named Duke of Anglesey after his swashbuckling smiting of the tower the Hordelings used to send signals to the buggers’ nanobots, Trahaearn was once captain of the pirate ship Marco’s Terror. He’s now a beloved figure in our London, “beloved enough that all of England ignored his history of raping, thieving, and murdering.” Sounds like a nice bloke. The perfect love interest for our Mina, who, though I’ve yet to mention it yet, is a detective inspector on the London police force. Saucy, sexy, and skilled at mortal combat.
Aaaaaanyway…the stage now set, we can get on with the main action. Mina is pulled away from the party by her right-hand man, Constable Newberry. Prudish and powerful, Newberry has the makings of a great sidekick. He bears bad news for Mina: someone’s been slain at The Iron Duke’s place, and the Duke may be suspect.
As I said above, Ms. Brook does a good job of setting the tone and explaining what in the hell is going on. Her writing is sharp and smart, and though there’s ample opportunity for her to fall into cliché, she’s doing a great job of worldmaking so far. However, worldmaking aside, here’s hoping the second chapter brings a little less talk, a little more action. Let’s keep reading…
Chapter 2: Biomechanical Boogaloo
The next chapter brings us to the Isle of Dogs, a peninsula where sits Rhys Trahaearn’s home, which, to hear our author’s description of it, sounds at first to be a grim version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: “The high, wrought-iron fence that surrounded his park had earned him the nickname the Iron Duke – the iron kept the rest of London out, and whatever riches he his inside, in ”(p. 18). As you might suspect, we’ll soon learn that this description might apply as well to the man himself, not just his home.
We meet the title character for the first time on page 22, far earlier than I’d anticipated running into him. Somehow I expected it to take several chapters before we caught a glimpse of the duke; it would seem that a bit more build-up would make him that more unapproachable. Unsurprisingly, he’s tall, dark, and handsome: “He was just as hard and as handsome as the caricatures had portrayed – altogether dark and forbidding, with a gaze as pointed and as guarded as the fence that was his namesake. The Iron Duke wasn’t as tall as his statue, but still taller than any man had a right to be, and as broad through the shoulders as Newberry, but without the spare flesh.”
This description gets me thinking. Granted, I’ve not read many romance novels (only the four or five I’ve reviewed for SBTB), but I’m pretty sure that in every one of them the hero has been a swarthy hunk of masculinity, and not a strapping blond incarnation. I put it to the Bitchery to set me right here: is it the case that the majority of romance heroes are indeed dark (“unless they’re Vikings,” Maughta points out to me)? And if this is indeed the case, why? Is it because dark-haired men are more mysterious and imposing, thereby better fitting some of the romance formulas that demand several hundred pages pass before the heroine falls for the hero, and even then only reluctantly?
It’s not long before Mina and Newberry learn why they’ve been summoned. Someone has dropped by the duke’s estate unexpectedly: a body has been dumped onto the steps in front of Trahaearn’s house, from a very great height. Mina’s initial investigation paves the way to her first physical contact with the duke. Before inspecting the body, Mina must remove the satin gloves she’d worn for the ball, but neither she nor Newberry could get them off without ruining them. The duke therefore takes the liberty: “His hands were large, his fingers long and nails square. As he took her wrist in his left palm, calluses audibly scraped the satin.”
Already Trahaearn’s full of lust…but Mina’s got to get down to business. “Mina turned the head. The fact was completely smashed. Identification would be difficult. She opened the broken jaw. The teeth shattered, and the tongue…” It’s clear that the body’s likely been chucked from an overhead airship, given the damage done to it. There’d be no telling who this guy was, unless they could track him down on the basis of his bionic brain and arm, which Mina intends to take away for identification.
Meanwhile there’s questioning to be done. As she and Trahaearn scope out the roof of the house, she grills him about his connections, including his furtive companion, “Mr. Smith,” and his steward, St. John. For his part, Trahaearn makes a two things clear to Mina right away: he intends to carry out justice as he see fit once he learns who’s dropped the body on his grounds, and he intends to do all he can to make Mina his.
This chapter’s definitely more action-packed than the previous one, but it’s not without its exposition. We learn, for instance, a bit more about our alternate world history, about how the Horde, in the time of Marco Polo, had enslaved scientists and engineers to do their evil bidding before rolling westward with little resistance from their Asian capital of Xanadu. We also learn more about Mina’s family’s past, about how her brother now serves on the duke’s very own former ship, and how mother had gouged her own eyes out after for the first time seeing the baby Mina, the product of a nanobug-fueled frenzied coupling with a Horde nobleman. Brook’s definitely got a flair for efficiency, jamming detail after detail into a scant few pages even as she keeps the action moving along.