Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook - Review

I have yet to dislike anything from the genius pen of Meljean Brook, and The Iron Duke is no exception.  But I had some trepidation.

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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Crave, by JR Ward -- Deep Thoughts

Not a Review
I'm working back up to doing actual reviews.  For now, I really just have a topic I want to muse on, which is this:

I think JR Ward is a hellluva storyteller in the paranormal space.

However, I do NOT like her writing about the metaphysical.

Too Deep For Me
I'll credit one particular element of Crave for making that distinction gel for me -- and it applies to the Black Dagger Brotherhood books as well as the Fallen Angels.

The wings, like him and Eddie and Adrian, were neither there nor not there, real nor unreal, tangible nor intangible.

They just were.

Honestly? That's just weak. I have the same issues in the BDB books with the Omega's tampering with time and with Darius's reincarnation into a being that had to have been born before Darius died. 

Furthermore, a fair amount of Jim's character development and scene-setting for future series story arcs are predicated on the corporeal nature of these immortals, including the arch-angels:

Nigel, as with the others, neither lived nor breathed; he simply was. And the food was the same, neither necessary nor extant-- as was the landscape and all that the four of them did to pass their eternity. But the trappings of a gracious life were of value. Indeed, the quarters that he shared with Colin were well kitted-out and the sojourns they took therein were not for any sleep necessity but for recharging of a different kind.

War was exhausting, its burdens ne'er-ending, and at times, one needed physical succor.

Now, the WARDen can build her world any way she wants to, but the thing is, I'm just not feelin' it, to use the vernacular. You can't say in one sentence that the  physical doesn't matter and then in the next say, oh well, but it helps.  I don't get it.  Why would one need "physical succor" if one doesn't need oxygen or food or, hey, the laws of physics?

And the coyness of the reference to Colin and Nigel's relationship really turned me off.  If you're gonna go there, let's just spit it out, shall we?

OH! and can I just say: the fake what-what-old-chap dialog/narration around the archangels SUCKETH MIGHTILY, YEA VERILY HUZZAH. (of course I can.  See? I just did.)

OK, I Guess It Actually Is a Review
Ward's writing and pacing and male characters keep me turning pages, they honestly do.  And Jim is promising, aside from the metaphysical problem.  I liked his engagement with Devina's victim and in general I'm liking his character development.

As for the romance, it's vintage Ward, in both good and bad ways.  Grier and Isaac had good chemistry and an interesting non-supernatural storyline.  But I pretty much felt like the characters were a rehash: poor sad little blond princess, who is so so very good and smart and pretty and good all the way to her patrician blue-blooded bones finds such unexpected, unseemly happiness with the earthy passionate badass damaged Taurus desperately seeking redemption.

All up?  Not that great.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lazy Post

One good (?) thing about giving the blogosphere a rest for a couple of months is that there is so much fun stuff out there to re-acquaint yourself with.  (I say "you", but I mean "me.")

By way of The Cultural Gutter, I found this awesome thing tonight.  Because I'm a geek, I love flowcharts and this one is awesome.  Please go check out "The Female Character Flowchart."  Be a geek like me and zoom in so you can trace each cliched, wittily rendered path.

I have also found myself ridiculously entertained by The Oatmeal and Hypebole and a Half, neither of which are book-oriented but are written by people who a) know how to write and b) have a disturbing insight to stuff inside my brain and my life.

(I'm particularly fond of HaaH's Why I'll Never Be an Adult.  If I ever manage to Clean All The Things you can expect to see CNN covering it).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Mysterious Disappearance and (hopefully) Triumphant Return


It's been a weird summer.  I can't really claim that I was too busy to blog, because I had some major chunks of idle time, but the thing is, I don't do idle very well. 

The big thing that was going on is that my workplace basically imploded.  There was a merger/takeover, and pretty much everything I liked about working there ceased to exist, so I spent the summer stressing and jobhunting.  I had a vague notion that I would use September BBAW to re-juice the blog, but that turned out to be when I transitioned from the old job to the new one.

As it turns out, jobhunting and stressing apparently consumes the same pieces of my brain that blogging does (I know, who'd have thought, right?) because on any given evening, when I'd normally be blogging or cruising other blogs, I'd be either browsing jobhunting sites, writing LinkedIn recommendations for my also-job-hunting co-workers, or staring into space.

Then at the same time as I'm starting a new job, my nanny quits, which is actually a good thing (long story), but making new arrangements and helping my girls with the transition took a lot of mental energy too.

I was hoping to go to a big signing event in Portland, OR but couldn't take a day off the same week I started a new job (boo) and today I found out that I missed the Emerald City RWA book fair last weekend, which bums me out a lot. 

The good news is, I woke up the other day with a few ideas for posts rattling around where the jobhunting stress used to be, and I really want to get going again. And I never stopped reading, so I have no shortage of subject matter. 

I missed you all, book bloggers, and I'm glad to be back.


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