Book Review

DocTurtle: The Iron Duke, Ch. 1-2

Title: The Iron Duke
Author: Meljean Brook
Genre: Steampunk

Book CoverDocTurtle has returned with Chapters 1 and 2 of The Iron Duke. Want to read along for future chapters? You can get a copy at Goodreads,  AmazonBNSony, or Kobo.

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.

Good stuff!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Tae says:

    yay!  I’m so looking forward to Doc’s impression of the book

  2. 2
    shawnyj says:

    Re: Tall, Dark, and Handsome – It does seem to be a trend. I just finished Stephanie Laurens’s The Reckless Bride, where the hero is described as blonde with blue eyes and remember thinking how different it was to have a blonde hero. Of course, if you’d managed to get through more of the Black Dagger Brotherhood (tall order, I know), you’d have found that they come in all colours (still tall and menacing though). I suppose that’s most likely because there were 6 of them in the series and they couldn’t all look the same. That would get repetitive, and plenty was repetitive in that series (I still love them though, sorry).

  3. 3
    Faellie says:

    Tall, dark and handsome was just about obligatory until a blond Italian (Fabio) started appearing on covers at some point in the 1980s, at which point tall, blond and handsome became a possibility.  That opened the door to other forms of hotness, although TDH is still the norm.

    Quite often, the TDH description only appears at the start of the book, so it’s possible for the reader to morph the hero (and heroine) into the physical format which most suits their own reading of the text.  But don’t tell the authors we do this.

  4. 4
    Amanda M Garlock says:

    I’ve noticed that quite often the blonde is the villain or someone’s charming best friend, but usually the hero is “swarthy” as you stated.

  5. 5
    Toddson says:

    Tall, dark, and handsome may go back to Heathcliff – the original brooding alpha male. The dark also hints at mystery, perhaps.

    But! Biomechanical Boogaloo! best phrase I’ve heard for a while.

  6. 6

    The dark haired thing is IMHO a mix of Prince Charming syndrome (look at the early disney “heros” in princess movies all but Sleeping Beauty’s is dark haired and Phillip keeps getting outsmarted by his horse) and the fact that when you survey people or do blind socio studies dark haired guys are seen as more stable, more dependable, smarter, ect. It’s like the tall makes you more qualified bit—totally without merit but people routinely think that way without realizing it.

    We want tall, dark and handsome, because they’re supposedly smarter, more loyal, more dependable, ect AND Disney told us when we were little girls that was what we wanted. It’s predictably irrational. (Says the woman with a 6’5” black haired husband).

  7. 7
    cleo says:

    “a hand grenade filled with tiny bits of exposition” – my new favorite phrase

  8. 8
    Donna says:

    Tall dark and handsome can slip in and out of the shadows. Tall and blonde invariably equals surfer dude, or at least someone who needs a ski cap to be stealthy on a moonlit night. There have been exceptions, but they aren’t usually characters who depend on their inner angsty demons for their appeal.

    Nice sum up, I didn’t even need to review this morning.

  9. 9
    Rosa E. says:

    This does sound like a good book so far, and kudos to the Doc for jumping right in, but I’m having trouble with the duke’s name. How do you pronounce “Trahaearn?” Tra-hay-arn? Tra-harn? Tray-earn? Or is it just me?

  10. 10
    delphia2000 says:

    I’m reading along with you altho I didn’t quite finish chapter 2 yet. Chapter 1 did have a bit too much exposition for me, but I can understand why. I like the world-building so far. I found the description of the Iron Duke as being a ‘rapist’ a bit confusing. It’s not an acceptable past for a story’s hero and I’m wondering if that will be cleared up in the near future. I’m going to assume for now that Mina has been misinformed about that and will find it was a lie told by detractors. However, so far, I like her; not so crazy about him.

    As for the Tall, Dark & Handsome cliche, maybe because the dark hair is a visual reflection of a dark and mysterious past? Maybe because only 2% of the human population is blond according to Wikipedia? Maybe because tall implies physically fit which matches biological imperative to select best possible genes to create healthy offspring? I have known women who prefer blond men, but I like dark haired men. Just my personal preference and doesn’t explain why I married a blond haired, blue eyed man. (Must be that ‘sense of humor’ being most important kinda thing!)

    I reject the Disney theory, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still a princess, damn it.

  11. 11
    delphia2000 says:

    I’m reading along with you altho I didn’t quite finish chapter 2 yet. Chapter 1 did have a bit too much exposition for me, but I can understand why. I like the world-building so far. I found the description of the Iron Duke as being a ‘rapist’ a bit confusing. It’s not an acceptable past for a story’s hero and I’m wondering if that will be cleared up in the near future. I’m going to assume for now that Mina has been misinformed about that and will find it was a lie told by detractors. However, so far, I like her; not so crazy about him.

    As for the Tall, Dark & Handsome cliche, maybe because the dark hair is a visual reflection of a dark and mysterious past? Maybe because only 2% of the human population is blond according to Wikipedia? Maybe because tall implies physically fit which matches biological imperative to select best possible genes to create healthy offspring? I have known women who prefer blond men, but I like dark haired men. Just my personal preference and doesn’t explain why I married a blond haired, blue eyed man. (Must be that ‘sense of humor’ being most important kinda thing!)

    I reject the Disney theory, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still a princess, damn it.

  12. 12
    delphia2000 says:

    Um, getting errors and a double post. Sorry about that. Can moderators fix?

  13. 13
    Joy says:

    Re the “rapist” remark.  I think Mina is going on the accepted notion that because the Iron Duke was a pirate he must have had a “history of raping, thieving, and murdering.”  I think Mina says that the newspapers said he hadn’t raped anyone but she doesn’t quite believe them since he was a pirate.

    What a fascinating world Brooks has created.  There’s mention of kracken-infested waters and hints of other bits of world history with just a remark or two.

  14. 14
    Kirok_enterprises says:

    IMHO, making the hero dark haired, enables the heroine to run her fingers through his ‘luxurious thatch of hair’.  Most blondes of my acquaintance have somewhat thin hair and tend to premature balding.

  15. 15
    Donna says:

    Then, as now, you can’t believe everything you read.

  16. 16
    kkw says:

    I’d be curious if more women prefer dark to fair, and how strong a preference it is.

    Like Faellie says, I don’t pay much attention to the physical descriptions.  But I think that heroines are still more likely to have hair of gold or flame (or both, I can’t seem to get away from red-gold recently) and while there are plenty of blonde heroes, dark is still more common, and red-headed almost unheard of.

    I have no idea why this is so.

    Am I the only person on the planet that thinks this book sounds awful?  I don’t get steampunk, and I hate not being able to appreciate it, but I am baffled.

  17. 17
    Karen H says:

    I generally think blond-haired men are insipid and am most definitely drawn to dark-haired men instead. Even if the author mentions blond hair, I tend to forget and imagine the hero as dark-haired. And if the hero is red-haired, then I always imagine dark hair (at most a highlight of auburn).

  18. 18
    Tania Kennedy says:

    It seems I’m out of the norm by preferring average height blonde men. Maybe this is because I’m not too tall, and tall men make my neck hurt.

  19. 19
    Laura says:

    Personally, I’m a sucker for red heads.  How about tall, red headed and handsome?  Am I the only one who would love that?  I’d take fiery over brooding any day.

    Also, I hate Heathcliff.  So, so much.

  20. 20
    Barbara says:

    Yay! Doc Turtle is back! Can’t wait for more of his take on THE IRON DUKE.

    @Laura—Red heads are my fav and are hard to find. Was it Kate Noble who had a red headed hero? Have to go check that…

  21. 21
    Laurel says:

    Oh, yeah. Tall and red headed. Absolutely. That boy I married is the only man I ever had a crush on who did not have red hair. (He has dark hair, going salt and pepper, lots of it, and blue eyes. Next best thing to red headed, IMHO :))

  22. 22
    Laura says:

    If you remember, let me know.  I can’t think of any redheaded heroes.  Heroines? Sure!  There are tons of redheaded heroines with tempers to match.  How about this: a dark and brooding heroine and a fiery tempered redheaded hero?  I wonder how that would work with typical Romancelandia power dynamics.

  23. 23
    Elise Logan says:

    TDH is definitely common, but blond heroes crop up occasionally (in my own work, I’ve done dark, bald, blond, but no redheads—I might have to fix that). About the only redhead heroes that crop up are more red-tinted brown than true redhead. If @Barbara finds that redhead hero, I definitely wanna know!

  24. 24
    Kristen A. says:

    I can’t find a citation for this, but I’ve read references to studies that suggest that there’s a correlation between darker pigmentation and testosterone- boys’ hair often gets darker when they hit puberty, given populations where coloration is similar overall often tending towards the men being darker than the women, et cetera.

    Besides the early Disney Princes, Hitchcock pretty much always had dark haired heroes and blonde heroines, so the trend is longstanding and not just in romance.

  25. 25
    Jeannie189 says:

    Jamie Frasier from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is a redhead. Also one of my favorite book characters.

  26. 26
    Cynara says:

    Just read this book!  It was the best romance or steampunk novel I’ve read in some time.  I’m definitely going to look up more of Brook’s work.

  27. 27
    Jeannie S. says:

    I finished reading this book and I really liked it. I would never have read it if it wasn’t going to be reviewed by Doc Turtle – it is definitely out of my comfort zone. I am now anxiously awaiting the next review…..please post it soon!

  28. 28

    You picked a good one… I loved this book.

  29. 29
    Jeannie S. says:

    Doc Turtle – when are you coming back?? I am eagerly awaiting your next set of reviews…..

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