Meljean Brooks' new novel, Riveted, is a steampunk romance that is also part of the Iron Seas series. I love so many things about the Iron Seas and this book did not disappoint. It works fine as a stand-alone novel.
It has action and adventure but also many quiet scenes between characters. Although this book is more slowly paced than some of her other books, this means that there is time for the story and the relationship to truly develop. There is gorgeous world building, and some deeply moving content.
The book entertains, but it also tackles tough issues. The hero is a scientist, and you all know how crazy I am about scientist heroes. For anyone who was off-put by the old school aspects of The Iron Duke ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ), David is a gentle, respectful, nurturing hero who is also able to shovel coal for hours and walk through the snow without shoes while carrying the heroine if he has too. Meanwhile, Annika faces her own fears and insecurities, but she is, in her own way, tough, smart, funny, and endowed with some very interesting skill sets. In case you are wondering why David has to carry Annika in one scene, it's not because she's a wilting flower who has swooned. There are mitigating factors. She's cool.
Ah, the plot. Annika works on an airship because it allows her to travel the world searching for her sister. David is a scientist who studies volcanoes, motivated largely by having survived an explosion as a child. This explosion killed his mother and left him with mechanical legs, a mechanical hand, and a mechanical eye. David is searching for his mother's people. When these two end up on the same airship, adventures ensue in the air, at sea, and on (and under) the ground of Iceland.
Want to know how to do exposition? Read the first chapter. In the first chapter, Annika tells a short history of the Horde that over-ran much of the worlds. Then she says that she first left her village she was frightened of everything, but eventually learned what, specifically, to be frightened of at each port. She goes on to outline the perils of each port as well as the truth she's learned – that even if you think you memorized the rules, you must not drop your guard. This should be required reading for every author of science fiction and fantasy. With beautiful language and a minimum of awkwardness, the reader learns everything he or she needs to know about the world of this novel and its protagonist. Just fantastic.
One thing I like about Meljean Brooks is that she writes “strong female characters” – but she doesn't fall into the trap of having a “strong female character” template. Annika, Mina (from The Iron Duke) and Yasmeen (from Heart of Steel) are all strong, but they are very different – they are each their own person. Likewise, the male characters are different – which is great, because I adored everything about Iron Duke except for the character of the Iron Duke, and I feared I was doomed for an entire series of brooding and slightly rapey heroes until her other books came out and I met the clever and tenacious Archimedes Fox and the kind and noble (but not too noble) David Kentewiss.
Anyone who has read my other reviews will not be surprised to find that David makes me all woozy in the brains. I love the detail that his mechanical eyepiece lets him do all kinds of nifty things, but also has a tendency to fog up just like any other glasses do. It's that kind of detail that anchors all this steampunk madness and makes it real, not to mention kinda funny.
The above two paragraphs are just some highlights of things I was thinking about when reading. This is the kind of book that ca spark many a deeply philosophical essay, yet never stops being fun to read. My only caveat is that I found it strangely easy to pick up and put down, as opposed to needing to power through it the way I do some books. This might be because of my other life circumstances at the time, it might be because I was distracted by a new Terry Pratchett novel that was due in three days (LOVE YOU, TERRY – and yes, I did finish The Long Earth before I had to turn it in, and it was awesome), or it might be because the book was slower in pace than some others. It wasn't unpleasant to pick up and put down – I sort of enjoyed reading a little, and then mulling it over, and daydreaming, and then reading a little more.
I ended up with a lot to think about including issues of gender, sexuality, equality, the meaning of bravery, and a declaration of love that made my toes go all tingly. Also, lest you think I've gone soft with all this stuff about relationships and issues, here's a partial list of the steampunky goodness: giant mechanical whale, scientist/explorers (non-mad), scientist (mad, evil), scientist (mad, non-evil), nanoagents, fashion, mechanical trolls, and, of course, airships. Oh, also…clockwork dogs! Special points for the fact that there are actual reasons for existence of the clockwork dogs – they aren't just nifty, they serve a specific purpose. For me, some of the Iron Seas stuff is a hit and some is a miss, but it's always exquisitely well thought out in every detail. Riveted is the standard against which I am currently measuring all steampunk.