I know a lot of people are excited about the trend, but to be honest, steampunk romance doesn't particularly do anything for me in and of itself. I enjoy alternate history, fantasy, romance and highly imaginative stories of all stripes, but a cover with brass clockworks on it isn't going to automatically get me going. As a category, the danger point where steampunk risks losing me is exactly the same as sci-fi or futuristic romance -- a tendency to dwell on the tech at the expense of the character or the storytelling.
Then there's the second-series syndrome. This is a tough one -- I really would prefer that an author kick off a brand new series rather than beat a successful one to death, even if it makes me sad to see the end of a beloved world (Sigh. Keri Arthur, I'm lookin' at you). Even so, sometimes I'm reluctant to start a second series, because how can it measure up to the awesomeness of the first? (cf J.R. Ward).
But Meljean's world-building chops are pretty damn tight from the Guardian's series, and rather than a weak imitation of that world, she turns her considerable talent to an entirely different kind of alternate reality.
I rather think the best thing about this book is that the characters take center stage, but the world-building continuously informs the characters, their voicing, the narration -- without anything like an infodump. The surreal, literally dark and smoky physical world lends a tremendous amount of texture to the story without ever taking over.
The story opens like so many historical romances, with Our Heroine reluctantly attending a ball, knowing that she isn't a belle, knowing that she's not dressed right, knowing that she isn't going to enjoy it. But instantly the Other-ness of this world is apparent from the smoky dark atmosphere and the reversal of the social order:
...everyone's togs were at the height of New World fashions. Mina suspected, however, that forty of the guests could not begin to guess how dear those new togs were to the rest of the company.Further description goes on to reveal a desperately poor gentry that reminded me a bit of the American Reconstruction South, with an intricate undercurrent of moral judgment, fear, and social stratification. Also, I love the way Brook re-casts ordinary English words-- bounder, bugger (!!), the Horde. She has an instinctive feel for one of the recently explicated Laws of Fiction:
All of this is interesting enough, but then throw in the unique twist on nano-technology, which tosses elements of the Six Million Dollar Man, McGyver, Night of the Living Dead, steampunk machinery (of course) and a dash of free-floating Jungian free-will angst into a blender, and presses frappée -- not with the gleeful abandon of Blendtec, but with the easy elegance of a tuxedo'd James Bond preparing a pefect martini: shaken, not stirred.
The result is a perfectly crafted, imaginative, surreal world that effortlessly suspends your disbelief from the first page to the last. I loved this world.
And you know, that's not even the best part. I love character-driven stories, and while there is always mad plotting to be found in a Brook story, it takes well-built characters to stand up to all that and the world too. Mina and Rhys deliver; Mina in particular.
Mina has this armor-- literally, she buckles herself into and out of it throughout the story. She wears it always, even over a ballgown--uncomfortable and inappropriate though it may be. She wears it by land, sea and air; and in retrospect, the scene where she gives it away is more meaningful than it seems at the time. I really loved this thread of Mina's character.
As for Rhys, well, I did not know that Wellington (the real one) was called The Iron Duke until I googled the title looking for the cover image. There are some interesting parallels, I guess, although I don't know as much about the real Wellington as I might. In any event, it pretty much went over my head until after the fact . I found Rhys to still retain some mystery even at the end -- I don't know what's coming next in this series but there is still plenty to be discovered about this not-so-modern-day Ironman to support additional books. Something tells me the Horde isn't done with the Brits just yet. I also muse that the Blacksmith might make an interesting protagonist, although his mechanized appearance might make it challenging to cast him as a romance hero.
This is a really nice cross-over book that should appeal to readers of steampunk, sci-fi, fantasy, as well as romance -- it has a little bit of everything, and all of it is just wonderfully well-executed. I hope you read it and I hope you love it.