Can’t decide whether you want steampunk science fiction or a steamy buccaneer Regency bodiceripper romance? Try Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas books. Brooks started out writing paranormal steamy romances, so it’s no surprise that The Iron Duke turned out the way it did. The exact time period in which the book’s set isn’t clear, though as an alternate history variant of the steampunk genre, this world’s historical periods would not correspond exactly to our own–there’s no mad King George, therefore no need for a Prince Regent, therefore no name for the period.
The backstory of the book is that Great Britain was invaded by the (Mongol) Horde 200 years prior to the start of the plot; not surprisingly, much of Great Britain’s population fled to the colonies in the New World, where they remained safe from both the Horde and the nanobots. In addition to subjugating much of the peoples between their own homeland and Great Britain, the Horde introduced nanobots into the bloodstream(s) of much of Great Britain through imported tea and sugar. These devices allowed the overlords to control the populace, though they periodically induced something called “frenzy” or uncontrollable sexual passion1. Nine years prior to the start of the book, “Iron Duke” Rhys Trahaearn, a privateer at the time, rose up and smashed the Horde’s primary control tower in London, ending foreign rule of Great Britain2, and with that regime change, the Horde’s nanoagents reverted to a healing repairing agent rather than a method of control. Our Heroine, a detective inspector Wilhelmina Wentworth, daughter of the Earl of Rockingham, is half-Horde, born nine months after a Frenzy in which her mother was raped by one of the invaders…and blinded herself when she saw the child to which she had given birth. Mina is despised and mocked by the full-blood English Londoners for what she is, and must be accompanied by a very large sergeant to prevent this antipathy from halting her in her duties, even as he assists her in her work.
The book begins with a dead body reported on the property of the Iron Duke; Mina is called in to investigate the crime. The body is found prone on the slates surrounding the Duke’s manor, face smashed upon impact…and the body is frozen in a world where not only is there no refrigeration but even ice itself is a rarity. Mina and her sergeant sidekick end up taking the body to The Blacksmith, chief mechanic for the so necessary prosthetic devices, who discovers that all the corpse’s nanobots have been rendered completely inactive by an unknown factor. Mina and Rhys work together to unravel the mystery, which involves privateers, a captured British Naval airship whose wealthy crew members (including Mina’s brother) are held for ransom, and a mysterious weapon up for sale, which is strong enough to affect people such that their nanobots burn out in attempting to heal them of the bomb’s effects. Mina needs Rhys’ help to rescue her abducted brother from the privateers who’ve captured him, but as an impoverished member of an aristocratic family which must spend all it has to maintain the mere appearance of respectability their position requires, she cannot afford to pay him money for his aid. All she has is her body…which fortunately he very much desires, demonstrating this repeatedly for about fifty pages as they fly in search of more information on the connection between the captured naval ship and the mysterious weapon. Unfortunately, if it were known they were in a relationship, society would regard her as ruined; reputation is a delicate thing, and given her parentage, a pristine one is her only protection against loss of everything she holds dear.
As science fiction, it’s comparatively subtle; Brook sets the scene and differentiates it from our world with considerable detail but smoothly enough that there’s very little “As you know, Bob” expository description or dialogue. She does not stop to justify why cars are coal fired steam driven clunkers, but prosthetics are sophisticated enough to serve as mechanical equivalents to the biological originals, and tosses in nanoagent modified armored semi-mechanical cats the size of bloodhounds to take care of the lynx-sized rabid rats infesting London just to set the scene a little better. As a romance, there’s more rampant totty than character development, so I’d place it firmly in the bodiceripper subset of romance; Mina and the Duke fall in lust the instant they meet, though Mina (typical repressed girl of the era) refuses to believe it’s that quick and (being also a tough streetwise police officer) does things to the Duke at first that make most men say eep! in an extreme falsetto.
1a prurient detail for a purely science fiction novel, but this is a bodice ripper in disguise
2Ireland can stop laughing now