Review: Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook

Format: Trade paperback, ebook
Pub Date: November 2011
Publisher: Berkley
Length: 320 pages
FTC: Purchased myself

It's rare for me to find a book with true depth that I also love on a really emotional level. Heart of Steel was such a book for me.

I know I've talked about my history background before. But I minored in English lit. Which means I've read and analyzed my share of literature, both contemporary and classic. And, while I love it, most genre fiction just doesn't have the layers there to really analyze in the over-detailed way you tend to do in lit crit classes. Heart of Steel has depth to spare. And at barely 300 pages for the trade paperback version, that's saying something.

As a continuation of the Iron Seas series, this book comes with a back story revealed in the previous installment, The Iron Duke. Heart of Steel can be read as a stand alone novel, though, since we get only the briefest mention of events from the past. Yasmeen, the captain of the airship, Lady Corsair, and Archimedes Fox, adventurer and finder of abandoned treasures, have a history. Their last encounter resulted in Fox being tossed off of the ship into a zombie infested land. But Archimedes Fox is hard to kill, and the two meet again—this time butting heads over a valuable piece of art Yasmeen kept from their previous run-in.

Beyond the romance, the adventure, the quest, there is also the study of emotion. "Heart of steel" is frequently used in reference to Yasmeen who is often considered impervious to deep emotion. Archimedes Fox is the opposite. Having once been under the influence of the Horde's towers which suppress emotion, he lives every moment to the fullest, emotions often exaggerated and never very far from the surface. Brook explores the importance of emotional pain, what people do to protect themselves from it and why some people seek it out. One character is afraid to feel too much. The other is afraid to feel nothing at all. The romance that develops between the two has an interesting, complex dynamic as a result.

The other thing that fascinates me is the smooth blending of real history with alternative history. Taking what really happened, setting it in the appropriate period, then tweaking it just enough to make it unique. Da Vinci's clockwork army has roots in the real sketches featuring clockwork cars and automatons. Even Archimedes' name conjures thoughts of one of history's most famous mathematicians.

The adventure, itself, is filled with swashbuckling, adventure-seeking action. There's treachery, danger, and suspense throughout the novel, and the pacing keeps you flipping the pages. Even while you occasionally just want to slow down and marvel over the writing.

Meljean Brook does for steampunk romance, what Connie Willis did for science fiction. She combines emotional resonance with the genre's conventions in a seamless way that profoundly affects the reader. And she does it with writing so clean that you'll marvel at the depth contained in such elegant prose.

My Grade: A

The Blurb:

As the mercenary captain of the Lady Corsair, Yasmeen has learned to keep her heart as cold as steel, her only loyalty bound to her ship and her crew. So when a man who once tried to seize her airship returns from the dead, Yasmeen will be damned if she gives him another opportunity to take control.

Treasure-hunter Archimedes Fox isn't interested in the Lady Corsair -- he wants her coldhearted captain and the valuable da Vinci sketch she stole from him. To reclaim it, Archimedes is determined to seduce the stubborn woman who once tossed him to a ravenous pack of zombies, but she's no easy conquest.

When da Vinci's sketch attracts a dangerous amount of attention, Yasmeen and Archimedes journey to Horde-occupied Morocco -- and straight into their enemy's hands. But as they fight to save themselves and a city on the brink of rebellion, the greatest peril Yasmeen faces is from the man who seeks to melt her icy heart...

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