Sunday, September 9, 2012

Riveted, by Meljean Brook - Review

Information: 
Author: Meljean Brook
Publisher: Penguin
Imprint: Berkley Trade
Series Name: The Iron Seas
Reviewing: Advanced Uncorrected e-Proof provided by publisher (please note that the quotes I have pulled may differ from those in the final edition)

Reason(s) for Reading:
Because I love Meljean Brook.  I requested the eARC from Berkley and was pleased that they provided one for me. (In fact, my reaction may have included high-pitched squealing sounds unbecoming of a dignified person such as myself.  Possibly.)

Series Handicap Factor
While this is the third book of the series, I would say there is  no dependency at all on previous books for anything about the characters.  I think the world-building stands on its own but it's a bit harder to say since I do have the background information from other books already in my head.  Aside from a very brief mention of The Blacksmith and Archimedes Fox, this could easily be the first book of the series or a stand-alone.  Riveted seemed like a faster, somewhat less dense read than The Iron Duke. As a refresher, the series premise is that the Mongol Horde overran Europe and Britain about four centuries ago, and introduced nanoagents in their conquered territories.  The nanoagents provide supplemental strength and the ability to attach mechanized prosthetics to those who are "infected," but when the infected are in range of a radio control tower, the agents can control their behavior to an extent - normally the towers suppress emotions, but can incite Frenzies, where the infected copulate madly in order to ensure new generations of labor for The Horde.  In the areas where the Iron Seas stories have taken place so far, the towers have mostly not been in operation, but the fear of external control remains.

The Premise
Iceland! Ship-swallowing mechanized whale! Volcanoes! A centuries-old secret women-only town! Runes! Victorian sociopath villain with lobotomized genius father!  If you're not intrigued, then you have no sense of adventure and should probably go read a tax manual or something.

"I've never understood it.  That is always the first thing someone asks: Where are you from. Not 'What do you like?' or 'What do you believe?' or even 'What is your mother like?' which all have more bearing on the person I am.  And if I don't tell them where I'm from, they try to guess. Even though there are other people with my color spread all over the New World, they assume that I'm Liberé-- until they hear me speak. They know by my accent that I'm not black Irish, and not from Manhattan city-- though that is partially correct-- and not from Lusitania or Castile or the disputed territories. It drives them mad, as if to know me they need to know where I am from."
This rant from Annika - and it's just the beginning of the rant, mind you - is terribly ironic because the secret Icelandic community that Annika grew up in informs her whole character: what she knows, what she doesn't know, what she thinks she knows.  She is on a quest to find her sister Källa, who was wrongly exiled from their town of Hannasvik.  The crime? Carelessly lighting a beach fire which resulted in the town narrowly missing being discovered by outsiders.

Keeping their origins a secret is the "prime directive" for any citizen (or former citizen) traveling in the outside world.  This puts Annika in direct conflict with David, who has made a deathbed promise to his mother to return to her homeland.  Only problem is, he has no idea what or where that might be, until he overhears Annika and connects her accent with his dead mother's.

In the meantime, David's coincidental occupation as a vulcanologist aligns his path with Annika's: on an airship bound for Iceland.

The Plot
Partway into the story, the airship makes a terrible discovery: an entire town of dead, humans and animals, with no evident signs of violence or illness.  As Annika, David, and the airship crew become tangled up in the happenings on the ground, Annika and David are thrown together more and more despite their uncertainty about each other and their own feelings. I've focused this review on the romance, but the monomaniacal scheme they unravel is more than a little bit epic in scale and larger-than-life characters.

Oh, The Romance!
I like urban fantasy just fine.  And I don't mind if a book can't seem to make up its mind whether or not to be a romance in the genre-defined sense.  I recall that some readers felt that the romance took a backseat to the steampunky gearworks of The Iron Duke.  Now, I didn't have a problem with that.  But readers who want romance in the front seat will find their wish granted in a big way with Riveted. Right from the beginning, this entire book is absolutely permeated with the longing and uncertainty and thrills and insecurity of that first big romance.

Annika's world view is so unique.  Growing up in a town of only women, where children are brought into the fold either by adoption or temporary heterosexual affairs, she is very unknowledgeable about men, anatomically and emotionally.  This is a common historical romance trope ("it was so big! it would never fit!") but turned on its head in classic Meljean style. When women leave her hometown and do not return, it's usually because they prefer men and/or have male children that they don't want to leave behind.  For Annika, this is not something she views with scorn or judgement, but even more natural-seeming to her are the lifelong two-women couples she has grown up with.

David is also unusual.  He's not what you'd call an alpha male. He has several mechanical prosthetics - both legs, one hand, and one eye. While the fellow on the cover up there is pretty cool-looking, he is not how I picture David: the lenses are attached to his skull, not bound on with a leather band. His hand is a steel hand, not a wimpy plate laying over flesh. (Also, hello, it's ICELAND. All that bare skin on the cover made me giggle a little).  None of these attachments have made him particularly successful with the ladies, as they - and the nanoagents required to make them work - are not common where he lives and travels.  His forays into sexual experimentation have been unsuccessful and left him with a few misconceptions.

While we're on the topic of appearances, I have to say this is one place where the narration failed me a bit.  There were several references to both Annika's and David's brown skin, black hair, (Annika's curly, David's straight) and the ethnicity of the name "Kentewess." I felt like I was supposed to be able to peg both of them into an ethnic "look," but I was a little confused on what it would be. Hispanic? Arabic? Not African, because of the straight hair and "aquiline" nose.  "Kente" sounded African to me, or British, but "-wess" ? Maybe a derivation of the German "weiss" ? "-wass" could be Swiss or German or Welsh or Cornish, but I had to google to find that out, and the brown skin didn't fit.  And for Annika, the description came a bit later in the story-- between her name and speaking Norse in the first couple of pages, I imagined her blonde and Nordic at first.  A small distraction.

The really touching thing about David and Annika's romance is how much innocence and naivete they both bring to it.  Annika believes that it will take years to truly fall in love, and that only then will she really desire a full consummation (to put it circumspectly).  Their love story has the nostalgic feel of a First True Love, with tentative gestures and misunderstood reactions. 
Extending a friendship was all well and good, but Annika knew that her attraction to him could easily deepen, she *knew* that a part of her longed for more... and he didn't. Continuing their acquaintance would only serve as fodder for her silly daydreams. For her own sake, she should end this now.

She couldn't find the words to do it. Each one seemed to catch in the ache beneath her breast and refuse to surface. Perhaps they didn't have to. David seemed to take her silence as a response and looked away from her with a weary nod.

Her throat tightened. This wasn't what she wanted, either.
Fortunately, the forced proximity of their journey and adventure prevents them from giving up too easily.

Bottom Line:
Annika and David's romance is full of the tender innocence of first love, and the adventurous backdrop will remind readers of an old-school Jules Verne tale. There's also a message for current social politics here too, giving the story all the more relevance. I loved the first two books in this series, but I think this is the best one yet.

Around the Blogosphere:
Dear Author
Smexy Books
Fiction Vixen
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves (a new favorite!)
Happily Ever After

1 comment:

Hilcia said...

Hi Nicola, since I finally read and reviewed the book, I can come over and leave you a comment. :D

I totally agree! The romance was sooo beautiful -- at least it was to me. It was definitely my favorite part of this story, although of course the rest was worth the read because Brook incorporated everything so well. But, I loved David, just loved him. As a couple, he and Annika are a combination of sweet and passionate. Lovely. :D

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