Series: THE IRON SEAS
Plot Type: Steampunk; Historical Fantasy; Soul-Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings: Violence-4; Sensuality-4; Humor-2
Publisher and Titles: Berkley Sensation
.4: "The Blushing Bounder" (e-novella, 11/13; also in Novellas & Stories, anthology, 5/13)
.5: "Here There Be Monsters" (e-novella, 10/13; also in Burning Up, anthology, 8/10)
1: The Iron Duke (novel, 10/10)
1.5: "Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City" (epilogue to Iron Duke; e-novella, 8/12; also in some editions of The Iron Duke)
2: Heart of Steel (novel, 11/11)
2.5: "Tethered" (epilogue to Heart of Steel; e-novella, 4/13)
3: Riveted (novel, 9/12)
3.4: "Wrecked" (e-novella, 11/13; also in Fire & Frost anthology, 5/13)
3.5: "Salvage" (e-novella in Enthralled anthology, 7/13)
Ariq and his men (and their families) moved to the southwest coast of Australia, an isolated area settled primarily by smugglers. There, he built a village called Krakentown, offering sanctuary to anyone who wished to make a clean start and who agreed to follow his rules—no killing, no stealing, no cheating. Ariq is a large man, both in physical size and in political power. He is feared and respected by almost everyone, from smugglers to government officials. Recently, a series of anonymous attacks on ships and airships on Australia's west coast have caught the attention of the Empress of Nippon, whose empire is located on the northeast coast of Australia. If Ariq can't stop the marauders, he fears that the Empress will blame the attacks on his people and the smugglers and will send armed forces to decimate all of the towns along the western coast. Ariq has no idea who is behind the attacks or what their motivations are, but he has to stop them or his town and his people will be destroyed.
Meanwhile, Zenobia Fox (aka Geraldine Inkslinger, aka Geraldine Gunther-Baptiste) is flying to Australia with her friend Helene, who is the pregnant wife of the French ambassador to the Nipponese empress. Unfortunately for Helene, the father of her unborn child is not her husband, and she is desperate to get to the Red City (the capitol city) in time to pretend that the child is his—just born prematurely. Zenobia has agreed to take the trip for two reasons: to help out her friend and to have an adventure of her own. Zenobia, as you will recall from previous books, is the sister of Archimedes Fox (aka Wolfram Gunther-Baptiste), who is both a fictional hero of adventure books written by Zenobia and a flamboyant globe-trotter who has risked life and limb in many adventures described in previous books in this series. At present, Archimedes is married to Yasmeen (Lady Corsair). (Their story is told primarily in Heart of Steel, with additional adventures being described in several of the novellas.) Zenobia has led a reclusive life because every time she makes an acquaintance or ventures out into public places, someone kidnaps her—or tries to. "She'd always been afraid. If not actively fearing for her life, then wary and expecting that she soon would. Only when writing was she somewhere else, somewhere without fear. Somewhere no one waited to hurt her, or to use her to hurt her brother, or to extract money." As this book begins, she has already been kidnapped four times and has survived many other rough situations. Currently, she is accompanied by her two guards, Mara and Cooper, who are disguised as servants.
As the airship moves along the western coast of Australia, it is suddenly attacked by the same marauding flyers that Ariq is trying to catch. In fact, Ariq and his brother have just captured two of the marauders' flyers, and they arrive at Zenobia's airship right in the middle of the attack. Conveniently, Zenobia finds herself rescued by Ariq, and the two are immediately attracted to one another, though neither trusts the other.
Zenobia has learned never to trust anyone but herself, her brother, and Yasmeen. Every time she has trusted others, they have turned on her. For example, her brother's ne'er-do-well partner was her first kidnapper (in "Tethered"). So…even though she thinks that having a fling with Ariq would be an exciting adventure, she doesn't trust him—not one bit—especially when Mara overhears Ariq's brother say something insulting about her looks and Ariq seems to agree with him. Ariq also tells his brother that he is determined to learn Zenobia's secrets. Of course, Mara tells Zenobia what she overheard, and from that point on, Zenobia gives Ariq the cold shoulder. Ariq is confused because he thought they had a mutual attraction. He doesn't realize that Mara has a listening device that allowed her to hear his brother's insulting remarks.
Helene is determined to get to the Red City as quickly as possible, so she begs Zenobia to figure out some way to get moving. Eventually, Ariq agrees to take them to the Smugglers' Dens, where they should be able to book passage on an airship. Ariq is extremely suspicious of Zenobia's reasons for such hasty travel to the Red City. Is she a spy? Is she carrying coded documents meant for his enemies? Why (and what) is she constantly writing in the notebook that never leaves her hands? Is the gold in her luggage meant to be a pay-off of some kind? If so, to whom? Why is she using a false name? Ariq plans to learn the answers to all of those questions, and he also plans to seduce Zenobia because he still wants her.
So far, I have described the plot of the very first chapter, which sets up the action and intrigue for the entire book. The couple's relationship moves from cold to warm to hot and back again numerous times, with their first kiss coming about a third of the way into the book and their consummation coming about two-thirds into the story. The romance is slowed down or stopped many times by Zenobia's long-nurtured distrust and her assumption that people (including Ariq) want her only for personal gain—not because they love her. Ariq's distrust comes from the fact that he knows that Zenobia is lying and keeping secrets from him, and he's afraid that she will turn out to be an enemy. Even when the romance seems to have hit a high note, distrust and secrecy continue to be problematic. Eventually, the two become partners as they are threatened by several enemies and help each other escape from numerous dangerous situations.
This is a terrific novel, one that kept me feverishly turning the pages well into the wee hours of the night. The author has created two fascinating lead characters with great depth. Zenobia has always been an interesting character in this series—a clever, witty woman who has made herself a fortune by turning her brother's adventures into novels that are read all over the world. On the downside, she is crippled emotionally by fear and distrust and longs for an adventurous life of her own, one in which she can walk down a street unmolested. After she is abducted once again, she laments to Ariq, "I just wanted to walk down a street. Even here, I should be able to. Is it so foolish to want that?" Along with being a supernaturally strong macho-man with loads of simmering sensuality, Ariq is completely committed to truth and justice in all aspects of his life. He would willingly give his life for the people he loves.
The story is told in eight parts, each beginning with a letter from Zenobia to Archimedes that provides a sketchy description of her latest adventures. Each part ends with some type of cliff-hanger that is generally resolved in the next section. It is amazing to me that Meljean Brook has created and published all of the novellas and novels in this series in such a short period of time.
This is a complex and fascinating world filled with inventive alternate historical events and fantastic biological constructs. It mixes steampunk with historical fantasy in such a masterful manner that the reader gets pulled into the mythology immediately, with very little confusion (and this is definitely not the case with most mythologies that are as complex as this one is). The characters—although they do tend to fall into either all-good or all-bad tropes—are all true individuals, demonstrating various faults and idiosyncrasies, giving in to bad temper, making foolish choices, and trusting the wrong people. The great thing is that we relate to them because of their human frailties, and we root for them because of their good hearts. I highly recommend this series, and I suggest that you read it in the order listed at the beginning of this post, which is the author's recommended reading order.
The Horde used another type of nanoagents to clear out the population of Europe. Those bugs turned people into vicious zombies whose bite would then infect even more people. Currently, Europe is largely uninhabited, with hordes of zombies inland and a few walled cities on the coast.
Most children born as a result of the frenzies were taken from their families and raised in Crèches—walled-off sections of the city populated and mostly run by children—where they received the bare rudiments of an education and were trained and mechanically enhanced to become workers. Currently, in London's well-run Crèche, "all the children aged ten years and older worked, but also spent hours in their schools. Every child raised in the Crèche was well fed, well dressed, adept at reading and writing and knowledgeable in maths." (The Iron Duke, p. 396) Currently, poor parents who don't have the money to feed new family members drop off babies at the Crèche so that they can have a better life.
Another part of the Horde technology is their creation of several types of mechanically-enhanced sea monsters: kraken (giant squid), monster sharks called megalodons, and giant eels. They also constructed war machines using Leonardo Da Vinci's famous sketches as blueprints.
Here is a book-by-book list of the happy couples who find their HEAs in this series:
> "Here There Be Monsters": Mad Machen & Ivy Blacksmith
> The Iron Duke: Rhys Trahaern & Mina Wentworth
> "Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City": Rhys Trahaern & Mina Wentworth
> Heart of Steel: Yasmeen, Lady Corsair & Archimedes Fox
> "Tethered": Yasmeen, Lady Corsair & Archimedes Fox
> Riveted: David Kentewess & Annika Fridasdottor
> "Wrecked": Caius Trachter & Elizabeth Jennings
> "Salvage": Big Thom & Georgiana Thomas
> The Kraken King: Ariq (the Kraken King) & Zenobia Fox
NOVELLA .5: "Here There Be Monsters"
The real story begins when Eben finds Ivy two years later and takes her on his ship to build a mechanical kraken (giant squid) that he plans to use to attack slavers' ships so that he can rescue their captives. He also makes her sleep in his bed, but she pays him a single coin each night to leave her unmolested. Unfortunately, Ivy has only eight coins, and the trip will take 15 days (one way). What will happen after she uses up her coins? Ivy tries not to think about it. The rest of the story follows the development of their romance, as Eben tries to curb his lust, and Ivy begins to fall for him. As in the other novels and novellas in this series, the consummation of their sexual union is a long, drawn-out process that begins with kisses and then (very slowly) gets progressively steamier.
Eben, Ivy, and Yasmeen are continuing characters in the series, so it's nice to get some background on their relationship. This is a well-told story with plenty of romantic angst and just enough action scenes to keep things interesting. In the end, Ivy learns that the only way she and Eben can be together is if she can prove that she is just as mad as he is. Click HERE and scroll down to read an excerpt from "Here There Be Monsters."
NOVEL 1: The Iron Duke
The story weaves together the usual two threads: the romance and the action. First the romance: As soon as Rhys meets Mina, he falls for her and is determined to have her in his bed—because he always gets what he wants and believes that every person has a price—which he is willing to pay. Mina, though, turns him down cold (although she is attracted to him). Her life revolves around her job and her family, and she isn't going to let the Iron Duke ruin her. Their romance is slow to develop and it hits quite a few bumps before their HEA comes into sight.
Now for the action plot: Mina immediately determines that the body found on Rhys' front yard was dropped from an airship and that it has been frozen for a relatively long period of time. When Mina learns the victim's identity, Rhys knows immediately what is going on because the man was the captain of his former ship, Marco's Terror, which he turned over to the British Navy after he took down the Horde's Tower. Someone has dropped the body as a message to Rhys, and he is determined to track down his ship and the persons who stole it and killed its captain. As Mina and Rhys follow the clues, the case becomes more and more complex. Another man is murdered; treason is suspected; and a deadly weapon turns up. Eventually, the Black Guard is implicated. The Guard is a well-funded group of fanatic bounders that views all buggers as animals and wants to destroy them completely. Even after the requisite showdown scene (on the high seas), the bad guys don't give up, so the action continues to play out up to the very end—as does the romance. Click HERE and scroll down to read an excerpt from The Iron Duke.
The primary story line follows Mina and Newberry as they investigate the murder of Viscount Redditch, a bounder who is proselytizing against the automation of factories. When Redditch is murdered, seemingly by a clockwork machine, the clues lead Mina into some dark and dangerous parts of London—to Rhys' horror.
In a secondary—but connected—story thread, Rhys and Mina's ward, Anne the Tinker (who was introduced in The Iron Duke), briefly disappears and then turns up with a strange story involving a blacksmith who is a rival of the one for whom Anne works.
This story appears to resolve Mina and Rhys' romance as they work out their mutual fears and move on with their HEA. Once again, Constable Newberry plays a strong supporting role as he continues to protect Mina in the line of duty. Click HERE and scroll down to read an excerpt from "Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City."
The story begins on the Lady Corsair, several months after Yasmeen dumped Archimedes overboard near Venice—to certain death, right into a horde of zombies (near the end of The Iron Duke). Archimedes had discovered a valuable sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci, and he had tried to force Yasmeen to sail him directly to the Ivory Market so that he could sell it to pay off a monstrous debt that had assassins dogging his heels.
The book actually begins with a series of letters written between Archimedes and his sister, Zenobia, the author of the Archimedes Fox adventure fiction series, but the real action starts in chapter 1 when Yasmeen arrives at Zenobia's home (in Denmark) to notify her of Archimedes' death—only to rescue her from a mercenary who is after the Da Vinci sketch for himself. Then, Archimedes himself shows up—thin, but alive—and kidnaps Yasmeen. He wants the sketch back, and he promises her that he will fall in love with her—no matter how ridiculous she thinks that is. Yasmeen tries to palm off a forged sketch to Archimedes, but he's too smart for that. He lets her keep the fake, locks her in a wardrobe, and takes off with the original. Just as it looks as if Archimedes' famous luck is holding, everything falls apart. Someone murders Yasmeen's crew and blows up the Lady Corsair, and while Archimedes is desperately diving into the harbor to find Yasmeen, someone steals the real Da Vinci sketch from his rooms. All of this happens in the first three chapters, and the story keeps up this compelling pace throughout.
Now, both sketches are lost—apparently to two different thieves. At this point, neither Yasmeen nor Archimedes have any money left. They have lost all of their possessions, and are aching for revenge. They are also determined to retrieve both sketches. When Hassan, an old friend of Archimedes, asks for their help on an expedition to search for valuables in deserted European town centers, they reluctantly agree. Archimedes still resolves to fall in love with Yasmeen, but only after a proper period of extended courting. Yasmeen is dumbfounded by his persistence, but agrees to go along with him, promising only that she will break his heart in the end. Because of the gender prejudices of the captain of the expedition's airship, the two must travel as husband and wife—a plan that Archimedes looks forward to with great pleasure and some trepidation.
The story follows a complex series of adventures as the couple travels across Europe, stopping along the way to explore various ruins, which are nearly always occupied by zombies. The ship's crew is on the verge of mutiny, and the captain hates Yasmeen (because of her previous mercenary status). There's also a complicated political plot involving Hassan, and that's the only part that bogs down (about 2/3 of the way through). To help the reader understand that story line, the author provides a dense history of the early centuries of the Horde and the more modern history that involves the prominent public figures who are front and center to this story line of intrigue, betrayal, and murder. Even though the information is helpful, it tends to be lengthy and detailed, so it slows down the story.
The love story is delightful, as the strong and independent Yasmeen gradually succumbs to Archimedes' charms. Like the previous books and novellas, the couple's lust plays out slowly, as they engage in a number of simmering love scenes that take them to the brink of actual consummation but no further—not until much later in the story. Eventually, Yasmeen tells Archimedes the story of her birth and upbringing, and we learn just who—and what—she really is (including the reason she always keeps her ears covered).
The ending ties up all of the loose ends and puts the happy (and now loving) couple in Paris, where they plan to purchase a new airship for Yasmeen. The next chapter in their lives is told in "Tethered," the e-novella sequel. Click HERE and scroll down to read an excerpt from Heart of Steel.
NOVELLA 2.5: "Tethered"
NOVEL 3: Riveted
David Kentewess is a vulcanologist who is enroute to an expedition to Iceland on the Phateon, the same ship on which Annika is a crew member. Years ago, David was badly injured in an explosion that killed his mother. He lost his legs, his left arm, and his left eye and has since had then replaced by mechanical implants, a process that required him to be injected with nanoagents. As David's mother was dying, she made him promise to take her necklace of runes and bury it on the sacred mountain. Since that time, he has been trying to find that mountain. When he hears Annika speak, he recognizes her accent as being the same as his mother's and realizes that she can help him finally fulfill his promise. Unfortunately, when David tries to question Annika about her background, she realizes that he is digging for information that she has vowed to keep secret, so their relationship has a rocky beginning.
The plot elements include a mad scientist, a gigantic mechanical whale, mechanical trolls, and a really strange use of volcanic power (which reminded me of the famous closing shot of Slim Pickens in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove). As David and Annika travel north, their relationship begins in distrust but eventually turns to lust/love and finally ends in their HEA, but not without a few bumps and a lot of dangerous adventures along the way. This novel enlarges the series mythology to include Norse myths and legends, which means that there is quite a bit of exposition to get through, some of which is dense at times.
The lead lovers are interesting in that they are not the fierce, cut-throat, worldly types of many of the previous novels and novellas. David is self-conscious about his scars, his nanoagents, and his mechanical parts, and he tends to keep to himself, while Annika is unskilled in social etiquette and tends to blurt out whatever earthy comment is on her mind, no matter how improper it might be. The villain is a sociopathic man with daddy issues, and his character is the least developed, and therefore the least interesting, of all of the supporting characters.
Besides being a paranormal romance, the novel also has a gay rights theme. Two very different all-female Icelandic settlements are featured, and the author deals at length with the societal implications for lesbians in this steampunk world (which turn out to be pretty much the same as they are in the real, modern world). In fact, at first, the heroine herself isn't sure whether she will fall in love with a man or a woman.
This is probably my least favorite book in the series, mostly because of the added chunks of mythology and the barely developed villain. Another weakness comes in the runaway sister story thread, which never really worked for me because its development comes so late in the book that its resolution seems rushed and inchoate. Click HERE and scroll down to read an excerpt from Riveted.
NOVELLA 3.4: "Wrecked"
Mary Elizabeth Jannsen (who prefers to be called Elizabeth) grew up in Johannesland (NE U.S. near the Great Lakes) on an animal sanctuary owned by her father. Her mother died during her birth, and the death of his beloved wife drove her father over the edge into madness. I don't want to give you any details about the mysterious factors involved in Elizabeth's genetic heritage because that would be a spoiler. In any case, Dad has plans for Elizabeth that she does not want him to fulfill, so she runs away.
Dad sends Caius Trachter, his best Hunter, after Elizabeth, but she manages to escape him by jumping from a moving train. For the past few years, Elizabeth has been roaming the world, looking over her shoulder the entire time because she knows that her father won't stop searching for her.
Caius and Elizabeth have known one another since they were in their mid-teens when Caius was an indentured, shackled worker who gave up his freedom to earn enough to take care of his mother and sister. Back then, Caius treated Elizabeth with disdain because he perceived her as a pampered rich girl, but when he learned the truth of her situation, he began to care for her deeply. Meanwhile, Elizabeth believed that Caius was loyal to her father and that he hated her.
As the story opens, Elizabeth makes a hasty escape from Britain on an airship, with Caius on board and her father in hot pursuit. The plot plays out as Caius and Elizabeth discover their true feelings for one another in the midst of a major tragedy (the "Wreck" of the title). The only weakness I find in this story is that the villain isn't so villainous in the end—it's almost a let down. Otherwise, though, the lead characters are suitably tragic and angst-filled, and their adventures provide some compelling action and suspense.
Click HERE and scroll down to read an excerpt from "Wrecked." This novella is available both as an e-book and as an entry in the anthology Fire & Frost.
NOVELLA 3.5: "Salvage"
This novella has the best opening sentence I've read in a long time: "When Georgiana came across her good-for nothing cheating bastard of a husband washed up on the beach with a bullet in his side, she considered leaving him for dead."