Monday, January 31, 2011

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

Title: The Iron Duke
Author: Meljean Brook
Publisher: Berkley Sensation (2010)

Before doing a little write-up about this book I gave myself a cooling off period. This, I think, was very wise. You see, I had all kinds of expectations at the outset; I saw The Iron Duke on so many tops in 2010 lists, heard rave reviews, etc and so I was pretty excited to give it a read. I wasn't just disappointed (which happens and isn't that big a deal, we can't all like the same books) but downright livid! I honestly thought I must have been reading a different book! If I hadn't read the book on my Kindle I swear it would have been in tatters from multiple airborne trips ending against my wall. Usually if I dislike something this much I stop reading and don't bother to go through the trouble of a post, I mean, why re-live a yucky experience, but I feel the truth must out. (I sure would have liked a bit of a heads up because then I would have known to pass.) So then I tried to imagine what I would say but my brain fizzed out as it tripped over all the expletives and indignant mental shouting. To remain calm, and hopefully not be a complete jizzwad, I think the best thing for me to do is head chronologically through the book using subject headings to recount my comments (best thing about reading on the Kindle is the ease of note taking) so SPOILERS ABOUND!

In addition to the spoiler warning: I'm sure it's obvious but I really am about to crap all over this book so if you liked it then maybe you'll want to not read this. A friendly warning from one who keenly dislikes reading books I enjoy get crapped on...

Summary -

The Iron Duke is an alternate history, steampunk "romance." Romance gets the quoties because I've hardly read less romantic material, more on that later. Within the last decade the British Isles have been released from the oppressive rule of the technologically advanced Horde by a pirate-turned-savior who has been awarded a dukedom for his trouble. Mina, our heroine and a police detective, is mixed race Caucasian/Horde and subject to much indignity due to the hatred folks retain for the Horde. A murder investigation on the Iron Duke's property begins our story.

The World Building -

The award for Most Disappointing Thing That Didn't Actually Personally Offend and Make Me See Red is that the set up here is bang-up awesome but poorly executed and explored. The opportunity for cross-cultural interestingness alone is fantastic. You have the folks born on the Isles and previously subjugated by the Horde, the New Worlders who escaped and have now returned, and those like Mina who are mixed race and suffering for it. And, yeah, you do get a few good scenes because of this but the lack of internal consistency in how the various cultures behave sort of ruins the whole thing.

And speaking of internal consistency, don't get me started on the science! I don't mind hokey science if it at least follows some system of logic but holy damn, the liberties taken here are just plain crazy! I wonder if the author realizes just how advanced nanotechnology is. As in, there are progressive steps one would have to take to get to the nanogoodness and there are types of technology that would get left behind if nanobots were to be in common use. OH, and let me add that if the Iron Duke's nanobots could really do some of the things they are supposedly able to do I am pretty sure he would have melted from the heat produced by that type of activity. And oh, OH! That reminds me, that pneumatic heart pump at the end used to save Mina! Whoa! So much wrong with that that I don't even know where to begin. When blood is bubbling out of your mouth your heart is not your only concern. It's possible I would have bought it if the science leading up to it had been better presented but to explain it away with the murky and dubious power of the nanobots and other such nonsense was not going to work. (side note: for a book with awesome use of science and a culture adapted to nanotechnology let me recommend The Diamond Age.)

The Writing -

The writing style was also not to my taste. Way too explanatory. Example:
The Blacksmith glanced at Mina.
Interpreting that look as well, Trahaearn [Iron Duke] said, "You can tell her."
The Blacksmith and the Duke have a friendship previous to this scene. Also, they are privy to info that Mina is not. This is all very obvious to the reader so when the Blacksmith glances at Mina it's billboard obvious that he's not sure if he should speak openly to his friend. But, you know, just in case I'm an idiot I get an extra line explaining to me that this was a look to be interpreted and responded to. Ugh! How I hate to be treated like an idiot! The book is riddled with this nonsense. It's like I don't know how humans interact or something and so I need several lines to get me through one exchange. Oh, and there're the dreaded infodumping dialogue and infodumping internal monologues.

The Romance -

This is really the epicfuckingfail of the entire book.

The Hero is too stupid to live. Props to Brook since it's so often the heroines who fall into this trap so I suppose this can be thought of as innovative. His TSTL complex is different from the ordinary you literally would die if you were this stupid (he seems to avoid death fairly well, though it often appears to be blind luck) but that he's too stupid to live in society because he has no idea how to act around other humans. At first, this appeared to be a funny angle on his character as he has a friend who was always giving him tips on how to interact with Polite Society. Then it became more obvious that he was socially awkward in general - ok still funny but then it just ran right off a cliff into no one is this stupid! No one would do these things and not notice what they were doing and why it made people angry. Again, this is really too bad because, unlike Mina, he was raised in a Creche and so his socialization was in direct contrast to hers and could have been really interesting. Instead it was completely illogical, falling apart quite quickly into Complete Idiotic territory.

The Heroine is not so bad at first (neither character is developed well as their behavior in the second half of the book doesn't track at all with their behavior in the first half) and has quite a bit of potential to be an excellent protagonist. Her commitment to her work and her family is admirable and believable. How she gets through the days with her Horde parentage is realistic and, moreover, makes her dedication to living the life she has chosen even more admirable. But then she starts interacting with the hero and I pretty much lost most of my interest in her.

The Courtship is of the combative variety (read: sgwordy's least favorite) which I've always found to be the least creative way to generate tension but whatever, I'll still buy it if the rest of the book supports it. This very combativeness, though, becomes the highlighter of Idiot Boy's character. He's attracted to her from their first meeting and proceeds to suggest that he should become "her man." He does this in his usual graceless manner and when she declines, his response is "do you already have a man?" She does not and so he doesn't accept her refusal. He's all "you're not already owned (this social more, btw, not really in keeping with the world building or his background) and I get to have whatever I want so I will have you." She's all "I carry weapons all the time and I will shoot you." He is the worst kind of bully and it's pretty obvious why she wouldn't want to be around him even if you ignore the problems it would create for her family due to her racial background. Example:

Iron Duke speaking- "...I'd give everything you asked of me."

How, pray tell, would he be able to do this when he never listens to her or takes seriously anything she says?

So for the first half of the book Mina does not want to be around the Duke because he does not recognize that other people have personal will and dignity. Sensible. But then there's an about face to her aversion and it's that she has PTSD. This is also quite reasonable once you learn of her past but it was never once hinted at or obvious from her behavior in the first half. And even though Mina initially pointed out the irony of the Iron Duke treating her exactly as the Horde treats people she never mentions this again and it's no longer part of her reasoning for not wanting to be with him. In fact, she is attracted to him now because even though he disregards and undermines her at pretty much every turn she's now got the hots for him and it's only her PTSD that's holding her back from an intimate relationship. Wha????

And then he date rapes her! He fucking date rapes her! That is the culmination of his courtship. I have been an overbearing, dignity stealing, bully of a d-bag and now I will show you how great it would be if you were my girlfriend because I'm awesome at oral sex. And even though she repeatedly said no it's only after he's decided he's done that he notices she really meant no. (Holy fuck! Blood pressure rising at alarming rate just thinking about this again.) If I was able to retain an objective sort of attitude at this point it's actually pretty realistic that he would do this. He has ignored everything she's said so why would he start listening to her now? But what really takes the cake, the bakery and the whole friggin' town in which the bakery is located is that because he's genuinely sorry and misunderstood she's like "yeah, I can see how guilty he feels so it's ok. I need to learn to be intimate and I may as well let him help me do it."

Seriously! My brain cannot comprehend this much awful! I am stunned! How can anyone recommend this book?

And the amazing thing here is that, at the point of the date rape, I'm only halfway through my notes on how awful this book is. I feel like this post is the length of a novel and I've left so much of the bad out in what is clearly a failed attempt at brevity.

Supporting Characters -

There is a hero in this book and his name is Newberry. He is Mina's partner and how she can stomach the Duke's behavior when she knows what it's like to be respected and admired by a colleague I'll never know.

The Duke has a close friend who's mildly interesting and the airship's captain is pretty cool, too. That is, until these two have to start behaving in really odd ways so that I, the Idiot Reader, can receive some very heavy-handed messages re the captain's feline genes. And also, they are on her airship of which she is the captain and yet she still calls the Duke 'captain.' Is that weird to anyone else?

Ok, see how I tried to move on and address other things? I even clicked through my notes for some other topics (and, believe me, there are many to pick from) but he date raped her! I just can't get over it. Even if this hadn't happened the book would still suck but since it did the book has officially moved over into offensive territory. Again, how can anyone recommend this book?!? And what the shit is up with putting it on a 'best of' list? Heinous foul!

rating: 1 of 5 stars


  1. I feel kind of guilty for enjoying this book so much now. And I'm wondering if it will hold up upon re-reading.

    I'm not a steampunk reader, so I just accepted the nanotech as another steampunk quirk (the entirety of steampunk seems to require huge suspension of disbelief to me). But I would never recommend the book to my sister, a biochemist, because science inconsistencies in fiction drive her crazy and she can't suspend disbelief in that area at all. (Oh, her rant about Y: The Last Man was classic!)

  2. Well, darn. I was really looking forward to this, especially after enjoying the prequel novella in what was otherwise for me a totally non-enjoyable anthology (Burning Up). I sort of skimmed your review, because I still want to try a few chapters to make up my mind, but the bloom is now off the rose.

    And: "Most Disappointing Thing That Didn't Actually Personally Offend and Make Me See Red"
    hahaha! And I totally get what you mean.

    Just so you know, "opportunity for cross-cultural interestingness" has now entered my vocabulary and I'm going to actively search for opportunities to use it.

  3. Thank you! I thought it was just me. I didn't like this book either. I kept waiting for it to get good. I bought it because of the high marks and then read it, I freaked about the date rape, I thought He was robotic and kept waiting for the real Hero to show up and...I feel so relieved. I agree with JMC I let the suspension of disbelief go so far as nanotech stuff in Georgian England (Victorian? I forget) to try and get the steampunk feel but then even that didn't come. I wanted more tech. More steam. More Punk.

    I think Brook should try again, and this time it will be much better.

  4. jmc - my guess is that it wouldn't go through a re-read well but i'd be interested in how it goes for ya.

    i also think steampunk takes much suspension of disbelief. i am perfectly willing to do it as long as the world makes sense - that sort of how i view all spec fiction b/c if you look too hard then much is ruined. i look up Y: The Last Man and those rants must have been classic! :)

    M - be sure to report back, I'm very curious how it goes for you.

    yay for fun with the lexicon. hehe

    Lyvvie - thank YOU! i thought i was going nuts when reading b/c i disliked it so much and hadn't heard a negative peep out of anyone. i wish Brook the best in trying for something better but i probably won't be there for it. this one turned me off so badly i doubt i would be brave enough to try her again. thanks for commenting!