This book was both lots of fun and quite disappointing.
The alternate history of a Mongol-dominated England with mind-controlling nanoagents, steampunk body grafts, and forced social reorganization was original and fascinating. Brook worked the steampunk elements into the story and the lives of the characters in a more intimate and plot-effecting way, and she also showed how the political and scientific changes common to this genre would not be superficial window-dressing on the same old Victorian-stereotype world but would cause changes in gender roles, family relations, local and world economies, international diplomacy, religious practice -- this is some fascinating territory for exploration she is setting up here.
And then. Then. Instead of developing all this really awesome material
, she decided to write a romance. And not even a good romance. A generic romance. The same disgusting, sexist, rapey “romance” people have been writing for decades. A woman who seems strong and independent but is afraid of her emotions and desires. An ultra-alpha-male man who overpowers her and forces himself on her, because no doesn’t mean no, especially if women are saying no for practical reasons like not wanting lose their jobs and reputations. But because this is a romance the reader knows the two main characters are Meant To Be so it doesn’t count as rape. And we know they are in love even though they pretty much just think about and have lots of un-hot sex. Because in Romancelandia being really horny for a particular person proves that person is your One True Love. Even if you don’t like them.
I don’t want to go on an anti-romance rant here. I have no issue with stories including romance as an element. I even think the romantic pairing here could have been good, especially if Brook had spent more pages fleshing out Rhys’ personality instead or his, er, flesh. His character here seemed, not precisely two-dimensional, but one-sided. We see his aggression, his controlling nature, his sense of responsibility – the elements anyone meeting him would identify. Even when we get the story from his point of view, there aren’t a lot of other personality traits. And that made it hard to see him and Mina falling in love. Rather than instant lust followed by standard romance-genre manipulations and throbbings, I would have enjoyed a process where in the course of fighting zombies and solving mysteries, two people learned to respect one another and fell in love.
This uninspired, unoriginal romance story was especially disappointing because it took away time from a story and a world that I really did want to hear more about. There were several elements that could have been explored more fully, and some fairly important inconsistencies that should have been worked out. For instance, if marriage hasn’t been the norm for generations, and most people don’t live in nuclear families, why is it that it would ruin Mina’s reputation to have people know that she had a lover? Brook actually states at one point early on that most women live in small groups with their kids and support themselves and one another, so obviously they must be taking lovers. I felt that Brook wanted think about ways in which society could be different and explore how mores are artificial – and then at the same time she wanted to stick with hoary old tried-and-true romance themes even when they didn’t make sense. I wish she had used the page space spent describing sex to instead develop how society had changed or why the Horde made giant sharks or giving more details about the Ivory Market. Or even working out some of the kinks in the plot!