Ever since I first heard about this book, and the Iron Seas series of which it is a part, I’ve been eager to read it. For more than a year I have waited for it, read anything and everything I could find related to it, and talked about it. Ad nauseum, my family assures me. I also adored the story “Here There Be Monsters” that kicked off the series, making me anticipate the first full-length book even more.
So when I received an ARC from the author, I was thrilled — and yet, I was also suddenly anxious. Would this book live up to my expectations of it?
On Twitter, Meljean Brook expressed the same concerns. How could this book live up to its hype? She even held a contest asking people to come up with review lines that would help lower some of the expectations — some of the entries were hilarious, but I could tell that there was real concern behind all the joking. This book is much anticipated, and no book pleases all readers.
I’m happy to say that I LOVED this book. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a VERY LONG TIME. For me, it is almost the perfect blend of elements that I often have to seek in separate books: a unique and interesting fantasy concept, strong world-building, an exciting plot, complex and intriguing characters, and powerful romance. This book has them all.
However, in the spirit of lowering expectations and acknowledging that not every book is for every reader, I’ve compiled this list of reasons why someone might not love this book as much as I do.
Reason 1: Complex, nuanced world building
As a long-time reader of epic fantasy, I can be pretty picky about this aspect of fiction. In a fully realized fantasy setting, you get a sense that the author knows his or her imaginary world as well (or better) than you or I know our contemporary world: knows its history, its geography, its economy, its government(s) and the fabric of daily life there — what people wear, what they eat and drink, what choices they have, and the degree of variety in each of these things. However, as with good contemporary fiction, a good book in an alternate setting does not need to confront the reader with every one of these details all at once, or at a level that overwhelms the characters and story. A good fantasy or historical setting (or in this case, fantasy history) gives the reader a good feel for the world and the rules that govern it that develops gradually over the course of the novel, with details added as needed that fit consistently into the picture of the whole. This book does that — the world of the Iron Seas is rich and very different from ours, but I never felt like I was reading JUST information about the setting. If you don’t like being transported someplace else that thoroughly, you won’t like this book.
Reason 2: Alternate History and Alternate Science
The basic premise of the Iron Seas books is alternate history, à la Harry Turtledove and many other fine writers of speculative fiction. It posits a different event at some point in human history and then develops a world both different from and similar to our own, as it could have diverged from that historical point. Some people don’t like history, or aren’t interested in thinking about how certain events in the past shape the future, and they might find it tiresome that this book gets you thinking along those lines. Along with that is the different technological development that makes the machines, the transportation, even the people in this world different from our own — I’m a tech geek, and I love gadgets, airships, and flashily equipped sailing vessels in my fiction. I also really enjoy how Meljean develops the social and ethical dimensions of the nanotechnology, artificial body parts, and other things made possible by the technology of this alternate world. Technology is a two-edged sword, and this book embodies that without getting too preachy or overtly philosophical.
Reason 3: Complex Characters
Some readers like their good guys squeaky clean — and even more importantly, their good girls. Those people might not like this book. All the characters have dimension; none of the central characters is flawless. They make mistakes, they have weaknesses, they change their minds and then change them again — you know, like real people. At the same time, the central characters are heroic in that “bigger than life” and “committed to their principles” way. Even the villains are believable and motivated, also bigger than life and committed to their way of doing things. And there are all sorts of complicating factors, like the possibility of doing a bad thing in a good cause, or hurting someone you care about to save them from a greater hurt, that make the characters’ choices even more interesting. But not easy, on them or on the reader. There are also really wonderful secondary characters, about whom I cannot wait to read more — some readers don’t like that, I guess.
Reason 4: Powerful Romance and Hot Sex
I used to think I had to read one set of authors for romance and another for great fantasy world-building and stories. With a few exceptions, the fantasy authors I read seemed to downplay romance, even if their books had a happy ending. Let’s face it, Aragorn and Arwen don’t get much face time in The Lord of the Rings, and although I love Guy Gavriel Kay more than perhaps any other author writing today, every lovely romance subplot in his books is accompanied by a death or loss that makes the ending moving and poignant, but rarely fully happy. And don’t get me started on The Mists of Avalon, an amazing work of epic fantasy where couples just can’t make it work.
But the characters in The Iron Duke fall in love, and they have awesome (and yes, explicit) sexual feelings for each other, just like in a romance novel — because this IS a romance novel. So readers who want all the cool steampunky goodness of this setting, and the amazing adventure plot, and the complex characters, but who don’t want to read about people falling in love and having amazing sex, will not love this book like I did.
Reason 5: The Cover/Package
I have to admit, the PDF version of this cover than I’ve seen on various web sites does not do it justice. I’ve illustrated this post with a picture I took of my own shiny copy (yes, even though I have an ARC, I rushed right out and bought it), so that hopefully more of the detail comes through. Because it really isn’t a picture of The Hoff in a motorcycle jacket! That jacket is wicked cool once you see the detailing. But some people won’t like the six-pack abs or the hint of man-titty, others won’t like the cool industrial skyline WITH ZEPPELIN behind him, and others might not like the shiny metal gears or embossed letters. Then there’s the issue of price, because it is a trade paperback, listed at $15, and it’s $9.99 in e-book form. (Of course some stores have coupons and special offers, but frankly, I thought it was worth every penny. I used my Borders coupon on something else. It’s also 32% off at Amazon.com.)
So that’s it. I loved this book, it is on my keeper shelf already, and I plan to read it at least once more before the next book in the series comes out. I think lots of other people will love it too — I know it got a huge consensus recommendation over at Dear Author. But of course your mileage may vary, so I hope this description helps you figure out if this book’s for you.