Heart of Steel takes place in the same world as The Iron Duke, a profoundly alternate history where the Mongolian Golden Horde, using superior technology, slowly devastated Europe in the 1500s, and enjoyed several hundred years of complete control. In roughly 1800 – and this date is important – the titular Iron Duke of the first book broke the Horde’s technological enslavement of England. As befits a steampunk novel, much of this technology is patently ridiculous – nanotechnology, megolodons, gene splicing, chainsaw arms, &c – but this is engaged with the proper amount of hand-waving and acceptance. Brook does not make the mistake of trying to detail the history of this alternate history/technology too closely, but instead throws her efforts into creating a complex world of believable politics and motivations. Gee whiz.
I say the date is important, because even though this is steampunk, this is not your daddy’s usual Victorian gaslight playset. The referents are all solidly Regency/Georgian, from the name “Iron Duke” – this was Wellington, the man who routed Napoleon at Waterloo – or the sugar boycotts, which were bound up in Regency abolitionist movements. The sugar boycotts are mirrored here explicitly in a distrust of sugar – this was how the Horde deployed their controlling nanotech into the blood of the conquered – but also in a series of arguments about consumer choices and allegiances between the two sides of the American hot/cold war going on about slavery, though it is coded in terms like indenture. Honestly, I could go on and on about all the really cool shit Brook does encoding history, and the complicated ways one’s allegiances are never perfect, but a series of compromises between lesser evils and expedience.
Which brings me to a thing about genre, which is pretty much per usual for me. This is solidly marketed and sold as a romance novel, and that’s not wrong. Yasmeen is a mercenary captain of an airship with cat eyes and hot pants, and she is being pursued by one Archimedes Fox, a man whose exploits as a daredevil are written up as penny dreadfuls (sorry, I know this is an anachronistic term) by his sister. Unlike the central couple in The Iron Duke, this relationship is much less dominance/submission, almost chaste in its reserve. Archimedes decision to fall in love with Yasmeen and his strange justifications for his reserve (which don’t seem in keeping with his character) are part and parcel with the doled out endless frustration/final cure of the format. But, unlike The Iron Duke, the relationship doesn’t devolve into a 50 page sex interlude that profoundly fucks up the narrative. And look, I like sex interludes, especially when they move the emotional plot forward, something I think Brook normally excels at.
But back to genre. This is the smartest steampunk alt history I’ve encountered in a long, long time. With another cover and a different publisher, nerds would be all over this like corsets on cosplayers. Just to be clear, I don’t think nerds are somehow better than the romance reading audience that this is sold to, or that nerds and romance readers don’t overlap. While I struggled with it for a long time, mostly due to internalized sexism, I’m a romance reader myself, primarily in the genre confines I read in generally: scifi romance, paranormals, some historicals. But as a nerd, I think this would be something my people who haven’t embraced the romance genre would enjoy. I’ve bitched before about how genre as a marketing tool divides readerships in ways I think is unhelpful, and this is a shining example of that. And, especially because steampunk is so full of godamn shite. Here’s my digression. My husband loves him the steampunk. I’m probably going to misrepresent his feelings, and that’s okay because he’s almost never online to contradict me.
Anyway, back in the day we both read some of the formative novels in the genre, stuff like The Difference Engine or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Difference Engine has bloody brilliant ideas, wrapped in a fish-wrapper of boring. The technology is pushed just that much, leading to some interesting stuff about how the Victorians constructed criminality and the class system. Unfortunately, the rest of it was feh…zzzzz. League is more beholden to the pulp fictions of the Victorian era, a series of literary hat-tips that ramp to a statement about colonialism and the hero in that mode. To get to the misrepresentation, my husband has this big thing about the feel of technology, some sort of Ruskin-esque reappropriation of mass produced goods towards the individual purpose. I feel a little eye-rolly about a lot of this stuff, because I feel like much of steampunk cosplay is just as rigid as any other folk costume. You can tick off the elements: goggles, corset, walking stick, hat. It’s just another anti-establishment genre that establishes itself with a dress code and not an ethos.
But, when I’m not being a cranky bitch, I love this stuff. I love the interplay between consumerism and identity, and the ways steampunk, when it’s not busy playing dress-up, can get to the beginnings of industrialism and rough the origin, make it weird, lay it bare. I want all steampunk novels to be this smart, but then I also want them to be fun, and it’s a tricky line to walk, I think. Steampunk’s readership is a divided readership, and not even half of it is to my taste. The navigation between the pleasures of spectacle and those of considered alt history are at odds; this is an old argument about world-building versus character. I said there is some hand-waving here about exact origins of this world, but it’s nothing like the hand-waving in something like Soulless, where the alt-history takes a backseat to more pulpy concerns like killer umbrellas and werewolves. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy Soulless, I’m just noting its pleasures do not come from a richly realized alt history that will make you think. It’s the difference between costume for its own sake, and costume as disguise, and that’s what keeps me coming back to the genre, often stupid as it is.
So. I don’t know. I thought this split the difference between spectacle and consideration in a freaking fantastic way, even if I pretty much don’t give a shit about whether our lovers ever come to their inevitable perfection, because you know they will. I’m a certain kind of reader, a picky, nerdish sort, the kind of reader who was happy I had to hit google a half a dozen times to write this review to make sure I was getting my dates right. I’m Team Frak Yeah the way the world here is laid out. I think this book is much less pulpy than the cover might imply. Or possibly pulpy in just the right ways: zombies! airships! pirates! without sacrificing coherence for romantic union. The ending is rushed, I admit, and sometimes the world is confusing simply because there is so much going on, but I will take those problems happily. Brook kicks some serious nerd ass in this book, and I’m waiting for the next.