I have said before that I am quite the fan of Ms Brook’s Iron Seas steampunk romance series. I have all the novels in print, on my shelf, where it makes me happy to look at them. I also have all the short stories released by themselves in my phone, so I can get a quick Iron Seas fix every so often.
And yet, to date I have only reviewed one of the stories set in this world.
I know, I suck.
I probably should start with the novel that started it all, The Iron Duke, but I have found myself utterly captivated by the latest full length novel published, and so here we are.
The Kraken King, by Meljean Brook
This novel was originally published as a digital serial starting in April 2014, with the print book coming out in early November. At 568 pages, this is by far the longest of the four novels so far released in the series. Let me tell you that not one of those pages is filler–between action, characterization, and setting, every word matters.
As I said, this is the fourth full length novel, but it is actually the tenth story set in the Iron Seas world. I believe that new readers could read this story without getting lost, though obviously fans will get a lot more out of it, particularly when it comes to some secondary characters. Still, one of the things Ms Brook does best is that she manages to provide enough information about the world within just a few pages so that even a reader utterly unfamiliar with the world can quickly grasp the gist, filling in the blanks as the story progresses.
The blurb from the author’s site:
A former smuggler and thief, Ariq—better known as the Kraken King—doesn’t know what to make of the clever, mysterious woman he rescues from an airship besieged by marauders. Unsure if she’s a spy or a pawn in someone else’s game, Ariq isn’t about to let her out of his sight until he finds out…
After escaping her fourth kidnapping attempt in a year, Zenobia Fox has learned to vigilantly guard her identity. While her brother Archimedes is notorious for his exploits, Zenobia has had no adventures to call her own—besides the stories she writes.
But when she jumps at the chance to escape to the wilds of Australia and acquire research for her next story, Zenobia quickly discovers that the voyage will be far more adventurous than any fiction she could put to paper…
The novel is divided into eight sections, and each section starts with a letter written by Zenobia and addressed to her brother, the famous Archimedes Fox, whose adventures she writes. The sections are very aptly named, from “The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster” to “The Kraken King and the Greatest Adventure.”
Fans of the series have met Zenobia Fox before, though only briefly. As stated in the blurb, Zenobia has been kidnapped a few times before. Fed up with this state of affairs, and thanks to the good services of her intrepid brother, she now employs two very capable guards who keep her safe.
Mara and Cooper are not only well armed mercenaries, they have both been infected with nanoagents and altered with prosthesis that make them faster, stronger, and harder to kill. Truly, the perfect bodyguards.
Which is a very good thing, considering that she has decided to accompany a childhood friend to the other side of the world. From Flatstrand, where Zenobia has been living quietly and in relative obscurity for years, all the way to Australia and the Nipponese Empire. While her friend Helene is very content with the prospects of an uneventful and swift journey, Zenobia would have preferred to at least witness some mayhem–it’s quite unfair that all the adventure in her life comes from reading her brother’s letters.
When the airship in which they travel is attacked, Mara and Copper leap into action, liberating two of the marauders’ flying devices in order to escape towards the friendly military ironship some distance away. Zenobia, she of the better-safe-than-sorry school, takes the time to grab hers and Helene’s papers, all the gold she has on hand, Archimedes’ all-important letters, and stash them all in the waterproof pocket of her glider.
Of course, even the best laid (in a hurry) plans can fail, so it’s a very good thing Zenobia is good in a crisis, as the flyer in which her and Mara are fleeing is shot down. However, while gliding for a few hundred feet is much better than dropping down like a stone, it’s still falling into megalodon infested waters. So it’s a very good thing that Ariq and his brother happen to be around to fish them our of the water.
Thus the wonderful adventures of this scribbling spinster truly start.
The story works on so many levels.
We have the amazing world building, which includes the technology and the alternative history. Unlike many a steampunk series, in this one Ms Brook actually incorporates all the potential differences that technology would bring to world politics, commerce, society, languages, and so much more.
Which means that, when she drops the reader into a story on the other side of the world, the political and historical aspect conform to what has happened before in the other stories, but it’s a complete story in itself, where everything makes sense even if we know nothing of the world.
This is also the quintessential adventure story, with narrow escapes, blackmail, firefights, kidnappings, more escapes, secret weapons, political intrigue and more. And it all makes sense! I have looked, having read this book something like five times since late November (obsessed, moi? what gave you the first clue?) and I have yet to find a plot hole.¹
And through and above it all, it’s a wonderful love story.
When they meet, Ariq is impressed with Zenobia’s resourcefulness, but he doesn’t find her particularly attractive. Then they spend a few minutes together as he ferries her to safety and he realizes just how intriguing a good brain is.
Zenobia falls in lust with Ariq pretty much on sight. Which again, makes all the sense, because the way Ariq is written? Yeah, I definitely would offer him cookies and breakfast in bed. So at the beginning all she wants is an uncomplicated affair, and soon finds that everything about Ariq is perfect for that.
As her feelings for him change, she struggles with some heavy duty baggage. Not only did she and Archimedes survived a pretty shitty childhood, but Zenobia’s experiences with men in recent years haven’t been very encouraging. Remember those four kidnappings? Well, at least one of those happened under cover of courtship. You bet I would be wary too!
So while Zenobia trusts Ariq to protect her, to rescue her, and to be honorable and loyal to his people, trusting him with her heart is a whole ‘nother matter entirely.
Ariq falls in love with Zenobia pretty fast, though not immediately. For some readers it may smack of insta-love, but it makes sense to me. Not only is Zenobia unlike any of the women Ariq has ever met–what with the obvious cultural differences plus her profession–she is as strong as any of them and probably more intelligent than most (if not all). It’s only sensible for a man such as Ariq to love a woman like Zenobia, frankly.
And though there is some baggage in Ariq’s past, it has nothing to do with falling in love or relationships, which again, makes his quick and definite fall for Zenobia all the more believable for me.
There are so many quotable lines and scenes in this book that it kills me to select only a few, but I must limit myself or I’ll spoil the whole book.:
You are my queen. I am your sword and your shield. I am your wolf and your steed. Mountains will tremble at my approach, for they know I will tear them apart if ever they stand between us. But you need not be afraid, Zenobia Fox, because my heart is iron and my will is steel, and before the new moon rises, I will come for you.
If Ariq wasn’t coming, she would blasted well save herself.
He couldn’t love her more. But he already did.
Be still, my heart!
The sex is beautifully written–this is another instance in which it is the physical expression of what’s happening between Zenobia and Ariq, as well as a way to show each other and the reader what’s going on inside, under the surface.
What is most amazing to me is the way all the threads in the story come together in this one wonderful book. Zenobia’s letters, Ariq’s secrets, Zenobia’s secrets, the political situation between the Nipponese Empress, the Horde and the rest of the free world–up to and including the Aborigine people’s.
The Kraken King gets 9.25 out of 10
¹ If any of my gentle readers find one, please do let me know.