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Kaia

Kaia

Feminist Killjoy. Badly Behaving Bookliker. Writer and reader of all things speculative. 

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The Iron Duke -  Meljean Brook Okay so like...what? That's really the reaction I'm left standing with, after this book. Not just what but lolwut. This is one of the most crack-addled monstrosities I've read in a long time and I have no idea how I feel about that.It's not like there's no positives about the book. Mina is a strong heroine. Sure, she has a heaping helping of Persecuted Romance Heroine Syndrome, but at least this time it's not because she's a bluestocking or something. Mina is half "Horde" (half Mongol, for those of you playing along at home). And since the Horde occupied England for two centuries, subjugating them completely via the use of nanoagents, a lot of people can't stand the sight of Mina. The discrimination angle is handled fairly well. And Mina is brave without being completely TSTL. I'd hardly call her my favorite heroine ever, but she's likable.And Meljean Brook's writing is mostly solid. There's more depth and more time spent than in most romance novels I've read in recent years. In fact, most of the book doesn't read like a romance novel. Only when Brook brings on the tropes. Once she starts pouring on the alpha male hero with the tortured past and the sex scenes full of aching and licking and wetness, etc. etc., and the "I want her but she doesn't want me!" "I want him but he doesn't want me!" misunderstanding crap, things get a bit wonky. Or should I say wonkier? Cause this book is wonky with a capital W-O-N-K-Y.Let's start with the history. Great Baby Jeebus, Meljean Brook, what did history ever do to you? Why did you feel a need to violate it so thoroughly? I know, I know. This is steampunk. Understand that steampunk =/= changing anything you want all willy-nilly while not even having all the original facts straight. Here is a little timeline I cooked up:Mid-to-Late 1200s to Early 1300s -- The Mongol Horde pressgangs scientists, forcing them into workshops to create weapons of war. I know it's roughly around this time, because the first stories about it come from Marco Polo. I will be generous and assume he himself didn't use the word scientist, which sees its origins in the early 1800s.1400s through 1500s -- The Horde rampages across the entire eastern half of the hemisphere, conquering and zombifying wherever they go. A wall is constructed, but as far as I can tell, it's of limited effectiveness. And if I'm recalling this correctly, the Horde had already conquered up to Austria by now. Also, the Horde apparently spends a bit of time just dicking around. Apparently they occupy Morocco and Egypt, and nowhere else. They only want the resources, you see. This is stupid. I spent a lot of the book wondering if the Horde thought resources magically dug themselves out of the ground. In fact, they leave machines there to do the work for them. This bit of altered "history" ignores a few pivotal facts:1) Even now, some resources are too delicate for machines and must be mined by humans.2) There's a limit to how self-maintenancing a machine can be. There would need to be people there to maintain them, and people to support those people, so on, etc.3) Land is a resource and often considered an important one. What's the point of having an entire Mongol Horde if you can't kill peeps and take their land?Finally, the Horde get sick of England being a stubborn little bastard of an island and decide to conquer it by secretly replacing their tea with Folger's Crystals planting nanoagents in tea and sugar. This is seriously clever, because England, being England, loves tea and sugar and before you know it they're all infected with "bugs" and under Horde control. Muahahaha, well played, Horde.Though I'm not sure why it took the Horde so damn long to do it. What part of the population of Europe they didn't zombify fled in terror, so there doesn't seem to have been two centuries worth of resistance. 1600s through 1700s -- The Horde spends two more whole centuries (they seem to love periods of two centuries) occupying England because...I don't know. They only wanted to occupy Morocco and Egypt before. Both places with much nicer weather than the merry ol' island of Brittania. (Incidentally, what drew them to those places, aside from the weather? Admittedly I don't know much about Morocco, but Egypt's gold riches ran out a long time ago.) But anyway, they're in England, they use a giant tower that sends out frequencies to the "bugs" (nanoagents) to control everyone. In this time, peers of the realm have a little more freedom (I use the term loosely) while working class and under are seriously fucked. The Horde uses the Frenzy (read: sudden intense lust) whenever it wants to renew its population. Yes, they conquered England and infected people with the equivalent of instant date-rape drugs that also make them more physically robust. Do yourself a favor and don't think on that too hard.Early 1800s -- The Iron Duke, having been bitten by a zombie, thinks he's going to turn into one, so he sails his ship, Marco's Terror, up the Thames and blows up the Horde tower. The frequencies stop. He can do this because, for reasons never explained, his bugs are just different and he's not affected by these frequencies. The people of England (BTW, I'm not actually sure Ireland and Scotland exist because there's no mention of them) go berserk with long suppressed emotions and basically start raping and killing everything in sight. The Horde, being in this reality scientists (I think) instead of badass warrior horsemen, die in droves. England is free. Yay.I have no proof that this takes place in the early 1800s. However, I choose to place it there because of the use of the word scientist (c. 1825) and the word shag as meaning "to have sex" (c.1790). (Yes, I'm really that freakin' thorough.) Because I don't care that this is steampunk. I've read plenty of steampunk that didn't completely and utterly ravage history to tell its story. When you're adding in such big changes of technology, other changes are often better off being more subtle. Otherwise it comes off outrageous, which is already too easy for steampunk. And while I like some outrageous, The Iron Duke often saw me struggling to suspend disbelief. And if you knew what I dreamed at night and how overactive my imagination is, you'd know that making me struggle to suspend disbelief takes a particular talent.The Iron Duke, if I'm being honest, feels more like it was written to cash in on steampunk's current popularity than simply because the author wanted to. It's utterly overloaded with steampunk tropes and a few other things that really have little place here. In fact, I have made a list for you. Brace yourselves, my friends. And don't be surprised if you find yourself singing "And a partridge in a pear tree" by the time you reach the end.1. Steampowered Everything:Naturally. This is steampunk after all. But Brook goes way too far. We have cars, which I suppose I can stomach. The walker (as in, you know, like an AT-ST) is a little harder to stomach, but all right. But then she has to march in the powersuits ala Iron Man. And I'm not exaggerating here, either. They have folding gun arms and can shoot fire jets via Iron Man's patented palm forward motion (no, I don't want to even think about how that works). But the part that gets to me the most is that these things are powered by steam. Steam boilers, no less.Okay, in case your brain hasn't caught up yet, think about this. You put a man in a close fitting suit of iron. You attach a working boiler to said suit, hot enough to power said suit. Probably hot enough to power the fire jets. I strongly suggest that, once your mind has put the pieces together, you don't think about this too hard. Meljean Brook obviously didn't.There were even steampunk sex chairs and clockwork vibrators, both of which went sadly unused. Tease!2. Nanotech: Why do I have the feeling that any steampunk fans reading this right now are going "What the actual fuck"? Because seriously, what the actual fuck is nanotech doing in a steampunk book? It's absurd. It's absurd that in the 1400s (or sooner) a nomadic horse-people came up with technology we don't even have now. Nanotech is really better suited to cyberpunk or straight up sci-fi. It feels out of place and adds immensely to this feeling like a cash-in.Of course, Brook needed the nanotech. I guess it was the only way she could come up with to have Mina being half-Mongol so her Persecution Syndrome could revolve around something other than bluestockingness. She also needed it to have the Frenzy and therefore make Mina afraid of orgasms. Because she is. It's not sex or rape that scares Mina, it's intense feelings, like an orgasm. Then Brook could safely make the book border on being rapey but it's okay because Mina's only afraid of orgasm. I mean, I like that she allows Mina to deal with it within the bounds of her character. And I like that Brook doesn't take a shaming attitude toward the fact that Mina decides to forgive The Iron Duke for giving her oral without consent. But it's a wee iffy. 3. Airships: Well, duh. Not much to say about that, really. Though one of the characters I really like is Yasmeen, the captain of the airship Lady Corsair. Too bad she's stuck in that romance novel trope which means she's going to star in the next book and get her own HEA.4. Genetically Modified Killer Sea Beasties: Don't get me wrong, I love me some GMKSBs, but the camel's back is already straining here. Brook chooses giant squid and megalodons.Wait. Megalodons!?Yes, really. The Horde have genetically modified megalodons, giving them armor plating. For those of you who don't know, a megalodon is a 50 foot shark that went extinct roughly 1.5 million years ago. (Yes, I'm really, really that freakin' thorough.) How the Horde got their hands on these is anyone's guess. Why anyone would be daft enough to equip something that really could bite through a wooden boat with iron armor, I don't know. What's baffling is that Ms. Brook apparently didn't do that much research on them. She apparently went "Ooo, giant sharks, cool. I'll throw those in. Who's gonna notice if I get a few facts wrong, right?" Um, Ms. Brook? Me. I'm gonna notice.Supposedly, megalodons aren't seen in warmer waters, like near the equator. Which is silly, because they liked the tropics, and temperate water. Like a vast majority of other sharks. Sharks don't have blubber for the most part and are only so suited to colder waters. In fact, what likely made the megalodon extinct was a combination of the waters getting colder and its food (the whales) growing blubber and going "Fuck you, mate, we're moving up north". A shark that big needs big food. Without it, it goes bye bye. Incidentally, without the things that caused the megalodon to go extinct in the first place, our planet probably wouldn't even look the way it does now. She also presumes the giant squid wouldn't be found in warmer waters, but I'm not sure this is necessarily true. Giant squid do prefer deep waters, though. And their huge, sensitive eyes mean they couldn't possibly bear to float on the surface with their eyes open, the way the one in the book does, unless that had been modified. Also, the ones in the book have eyes the size of lorries (trucks) and somehow Mina managed to kill this one with a tiny little handheld harpoon to the bottom of its eye. Wut? These too are armored, by the way. Naturally they're called kraken (despite the kraken being traditionally represented as some kind of octopode) and they're way bigger than any known giant squid. At least the Horde are talented at what they do. I'll refrain from mentioning that it's unlikely either these redonkulously large squid or the megalodons would've been able to find enough food to survive. Okay, I lied. Obviously.5. Prosthetics: And holy hell, some of these are beyond absurd, like the prosthetic eyes. These eyes are far more advanced than human eyes, being able to detect things like changes in human skin temperature. There's also something that sounds like replacement skin, only made out of some kind of skin-like metal. 6. Zombies: Or as I like to call them, ZOMGbies.These are basically 28 Days Later zombies with a few changes. Which I wouldn't even know if the book hadn't gotten me in the mood for some ZOMGbie survival horror. After watching the movie, I realized that I'd only seen hissing zombies in two places: this book, and that movie. The ones in the book are also fast zombies, and there's some belief that the people are still alive. Considering that the Horde made these zombies by infecting them with nanoagents, and these nanoagents control, suppress, and inflame emotions, it seems reasonable to assume that Brook's zombies are also RAGE!zombies. However, they need to be shot in the head, infection is apparently slower, and they're as dumb as slow zombies. They can't frigging climb. This leads to the most disappointing scene in the whole book, for me at least. We have zombies loose aboard a ship, but they went belowdecks and because they can't climb, the Iron Duke kills them by making some noise and waiting for them to get close enough to shoot. I has such a sad, guys. The zombies come with some disturbing...side-effects. Many people fled, and those who didn't were generally zombified. Many places in Africa are apparently thick with zombies. Like, wall to wall zombies. This brought me to a halt, because apparently a large portion of the world's black population has been effectively wiped out due to zombifying. WTF? The Mongols get an alternate history. The white people get an alternate history. But the black people get to be low-technology savages who can't escape the zombie hordes? There have been plenty of high cultures in Africa, so why couldn't some of them still be going strong? Africa is an entire freakin' continent and in Brook's world, it's largely an entire freakin' continent of zombies. I don't think it was her intention to wipe out black history and absolve the disease-ridden Orcs Europeans of that whole slavery thing, but it kinda disturbs me nonetheless. I might be spending too much time on JournelFen communities. (YMMV. Some people may not have perceived this the way I did. But due to my struggling suspension of disbelief, a lot of little details jumped at me and my mind couldn't help chewing on them.)I don't think that's all of it, but I don't want to be here the rest of my life. There were also skads of romance tropes, including the one where the Iron Duke is a personality-less emo-boy with a huge "everything I care about is mine, mine, mine!" complex. Seriously, he was an abused sex slave. A good thing he didn't know his parents, because I'm sure his father would've been an alcoholic who beat him and his mother a neglectful, cheating bitch. The book was also pretty much missing the "punk" part of "steampunk". Mina shows some concern for lower social classes, but there's not much raging against the machine, so to speak. Outside of not being allowed divorce, women's rights don't seem that behind. Mina herself is an inspector and there are many women in positions of power. And Mina comes from a noble family. Maybe if we were seeing the poor people instead it would've felt more punky, but I dunno.Sadly, I will probably read the next one. Brook's writing goes down easy (except the sex parts, which are loaded down with cliches and redundancies) and also, ZOMGbies. I don't get enough ZOMGbies in my reading because zombie books are divided into four kinds:1. Pastiche, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a book whose very existence makes my hard-working blood boil). I am ambivalent about these, generally.2. Inside the mind of the zombie type books. I have no interest. I don't care about the inner workings of something that wants to eat me. I only wanna know how to kill it.3. Zombie victim books, like The Forest of Hands and Teeth. I hate these. Aside from being depressing, they make no sense to me. Humans would not lay down and let zombies take over. Definitely the French wouldn't.4. Zombie survival horror books. These involve running from zombies, shooting at zombies, and blowing zombies up. These are the only kind I like, because sometimes I'm a thirteen-year-old boy like that. (Actually, I've psychoanalyzed why this is, but I won't bore you with that.) Sadly, these seem to be the minority. But I'd better get WAY more ZOMGbies next time. (I'd just like to add that I'm sorry if it sounded like I was coming down on romance novels. What I was coming down on was some of the overly common romance novel tropes and it's hard to do that without sounding scornful. Also, I'm not hard on the sex scenes because they're sex. I'm hard on them because they're not very well written and feel jarring in the novel.)