Oct 8 2013 8:30am

Everything is Better with Sky Pirates: Reading Meljean Brook’s Heart of Steel

Heart of Steel by Meljean BrookPirates Versus Zombies – Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook

I've been reading and reviewing romance novels for more than six months now, and not every book I've read has worked for me. I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about the books I’ve read and my reactions to them, and I think I’ve finally worked out what was missing in some of the books I’ve read to date.

Their heroines weren’t freaking sky pirates.

That is basically the whole substance of my review of Meljean Brook's Heart of Steel. Seriously. The heroine is a sky pirate. There is nothing about that which is not awesome.

Pedantic readers may point out that Yasmeen (a.k.a. Captain Corsair, a.k.a. Lady Corsair—although that’s technically the name of the ship) isn’t actually a pirate per se but a mercenary skycaptain. But you know what, you say pirateato, I say pirateahto. Besides, she wears thighboots, lives on a ship, and fights with curvy edged weapons. Pirate.

Oh, as always, I should point out that this review will contain spoilers.

Anyway, Heart of Steel tells the story of Yasmeen (who is a sky pirate) and Archimedes Fox (who is not a sky pirate). Both of these characters appeared in the Iron Duke and, indeed, one threw the other off an airship into a city full of zombies (he apparently recovered). Archimedes catches up with Yasmeen in a place called (I think—I’m afraid I sometimes lose track of geography) Port Fallow, shoots her with an opium dart, and tells her that he needs her to give him the sketch by Leonardo da Vinci that she took from him at their last meeting, and also that he intends to fall in love with her.

From here Archimedes and Yasmeen embark on a thrilling tale of treasure hunting, revenge, and general swashbuckling as they romp around the ruined, zombie-haunted remains of Europe seeking the legendary clockwork army that was (allegedly) created in the last days of resistance against the Horde, in a last ditch effort to turn the tides of invasion. The ultimate aim of Archimedes's quest is to earn enough money to pay off his debt to the terrifying and powerful Temür Agha, while Yasmeen intends to use the whole event as a ploy to discover whether Temür Agha or his companion, a member of an elite order of bodyguards and assassins called the gan tsetseg, were responsible for the destruction of her ship and the deaths of her crew.

When I read The Iron Duke a few months ago, I was very impressed with the implied scope of Brook's world. There was a real sense of something larger and more complicated out there than we could see just from the few hints we saw in the first novel. Heart of Steel gives a greater insight into this world, particularly into the Horde, which is something of a bogeyman in the first volume—existing almost entirely off-camera and seen by virtually every character in the book as something to hate or fear. In Heart of Steel we see a lot more of Europe, as well as parts of Africa. Admittedly, a lot of what we see is zombie-infested wasteland, but it still creates a greater impression of these events taking place in a real world with a real history.

Incidentally, I do wonder to what extent the whole zombie plague was inspired not by the inherent awesomeness of zombies, but by the need for a convenient way to simplify worldbuilding. Creating secondary worlds is difficult at the best of times, and when you're trying to create something as ambitious as an entire alternative Europe with history diverging centuries before your setting's present day, being able to just write ZOMBIES HERE over large chunks of the map is probably the only way to make the whole thing workable.

Also zombies are awesome. Although not as awesome as sky pirates.

Anyway, I think what I particularly liked about the worldbuilding in Heart of Steel wasn't so much the places we saw (which were mostly ruins full of zombies) as the discussions people had about the world as they passed over it. Through the interactions between the various travellers on their trans-European voyage, Brook reveals many more details about her secondary world. There's the history of the French-Libere war, the way that ordinary Mongolians (and subjects of the wider Empire) reacted to the erection of the towers that control the emotions of the Horde's subject peoples, and the evidence not only of a plurality of political factions within the Horde (which seemed quite monolithic in The Iron Duke) but also of factionalisation within those factions, and of complex interactions between the Horde and what remains of the outside world.

Both the world and the central plot of Heart of Steel are also pleasingly non-white-centric. Archimedes is fairly unambiguously of northern European ancestry, but Yasmeen is explicitly described as ethnically unplaceable, and she originally hails from Constantinople which I think would have been under Ottoman rule before the Horde took over (although I'm not completely sure on this one because I confess that I'm not exactly certain at what time the invasions of the Horde in the world of the Iron Seas start to diverge from the actual Mongolian invasions in the real world). It is striking (both in how unusual it is, and in how depressing it is for it to be quite so unusual) that virtually all of the actual agents of the plot of Heart of Steel are non-European. The driving force of the narrative ultimately boils down to a disagreement between two Moroccans about how best to deal with a Mongolian who is himself planning a rebellion against other Mongolians. To put it another way, in Brook's world it isn't only white people who have goals and agendas that matter. Which isn't as common in popular fiction as one might like.

This is about the point where I realise that I've been talking about a romance novel for nearly a thousand words and haven't actually mentioned any, y'know, romance. There's something quite knowing about the way the whole thing is set up. Archimedes starts the novel explicitly declaring his intent to fall in love with Yasmeen, who declares her intent not to fall in love with him (although she's willing to, y'know, shag). Unlike The Iron Duke, I felt that the tone and presentation of the central love story dovetailed perfectly with the wider narrative. The story of Heart of Steel is a sort of physical and emotional picaresque, Yasmeen and Archimedes are both displaced people, and they come together on a fragmented journey around a fragmented Europe.

Yasmeen's emotional arc is somewhat longer and more in-depth than Archimedes's. While he starts the book determined to fall in love with the awesome ninja sky pirate and, by the end of the book, achieves his goal, Yasmeen begins in a much less enthusiastic, much less trusting place. I mean the book is even called Heart of Steel for Pete's sake, the clue is in the name. I think what's interesting about Yasmeen's arc is that she isn't a stereotypical ice queen. She's clearly a very passionate, very sensual, and even very emotional person—she has no difficulty acknowledging or expressing her feelings, and she clearly feels both loyalty and loss very deeply. It's just that she equates romantic love, within the society in which she lives (which—female pirate captains aside—often seems about as patriarchal and repressive as the actual nineteenth century) with weakness, and arguably with good reason. What makes her relationship with Archimedes special is that he is able to love her in a way that supports her position and her authority, rather than undermining them.

This is another situation in which I was struck by an element of the book being rarer than I would like. For all their playful banter and somewhat unusual courtship, it is always firmly accepted that—aboard ship and in public at least—Archimedes is strictly subordinate to Yasmeen. She's the Captain, he isn't, that's how it works. What struck me as unusual about this is that, to Archimedes at least, it isn't even that big a deal. There is no sense that he might find this emasculating, or that there is anything wrong with being in a relationship with a woman who might spend a lot of her time giving you orders. I think I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the romances I've read (and admittedly, I haven't read that many in total) in which the heroine is in an actual position of authority over the hero. And true, they don't spend much of the book on Yasmeen's actual ship (which is where her authority over Archimedes would be its most explicit) but he spends the entire book making certain that he never attempt to control, undercut, or overshadow her. Which is sort of remarkable.

Archimedes himself is pretty awesome. And again I note that Brook neatly ducks the more problematic elements of the Victorian gentleman adventurer archetype (a group of people who, in real life, spent a lot of time going to foreign countries, stealing things and causing trouble) by having him operate in regions occupied almost entirely by zombies. Waistcoats, pistols and implausible acts of swashbuckling all add up to a big win in the hero column. On a purely personal level, I was a little bit disappointed by his, umm, body type. The thing is, Archimedes is one of the first heroes I've read who might plausibly look a bit like me; he isn't an FBI agent or a six-foot-eight vampire king, he's basically a glorified tomb robber. In D&D terms, he'd be a rogue. But every time you get a physical description of the guy he's all broad shoulders and hard muscle. And obviously I'm basically the last person who should be complaining about normative beauty standards, but because Archimedes was, in many ways, far less hypermasculinised than many of the heroes I've read so far I was disappointed to find his actual body slotted so neatly into the template of the tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed hero.

Archimedes's manly pecs aside, Heart of Steel is a fantastic steampunk romp. And seriously, genetically engineered sky pirate fights zombies, how can that not be awesome.

Everything I learned about life and love from reading Heart of Steel:

Just because you've thrown a man off an airship, that doesn't mean it's the end of your relationship. If you want a woman to fall for you, take her on a romantic tour of Europe's zombie-infested ruins. Pretending to be married always ends well. Everything is better with sky pirates.


Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
I felt like Heart of Steel took what was fantasic and laid out in The Iron Duke, and channeled it into more of a romance novel, and so I preferred HoS to TID, but of course I liked both. I really liked Archimedes. He was a very different type of hero.
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
Just because you've thrown a man off an airship, that doesn't mean it's the end of your relationship.

I need this book in my life, clearly. Another hilarious review, thanks.
Kathy Brantley
3. KathyB
Heart of Steel was a great book. The steampunk devices/doohickeys didn't overpower the story but only added an interesting backdrop for me. I loved Yasmeen -she could show Tyra Banks what "fierce" really means. I remember in The Iron Duke how surprised and shocked I was when Yasmeen literally threw Archimedes off her ship. She's brash and tough and takes no prisoners. Heart of Steel had a tone/feeling like Indiana Jones movies - action, adventure, danger around every corner - and I'm pretty sure Archimedes felt the same way about zombies as Indy did about snakes.

I hadn't really thought about Archimedes' broad shoulders/body type. I guess I've read so many romances in which the hero has that prerequisite body form that I tend not to notice those descriptions. I did like that even though he sometimes expected to act all hero-ish and save Yasmeen from various threats, he didn't start beating his chest and acting like a Neanderthal when she "saved" herself. That scene with Guillouet comes to mind when he complains, "Can't I save you just once?" I just loved his humor, his charm, his addiction to waistcoats, and his self-confidence. The banter between them was fun and, of course, zombies for the win.

On another note, I'm really looking forward to Scarsdale's story at some point in the future. I think she's said it will tentatively be after the next Iron Seas book, The Kraken King. The other character I hope she writes about is the Blacksmith from The Iron Duke. It's a fascinating world Ms. Brook created with lots of diverse characters.
Estara Swanberg
4. Estara
2 things sprang to mind:

Mary Jo Putney's historical romance novel with a rogue-like hero who actually is slight and remains so (and of course you already met Chase's D'Esmond) - Angel Rogue.

If you enjoyed the alternate history of Europe and the agency of poc here, you might really like Kate Elliott's fantasy trilogy (with romantic subplot) which starts with Cold Magic.

I really liked the start of this book but faltered when they went into Zombie-infested Europe. I need to pick this up again.
5. Arethusa
This book is the...shinaynay! I loved it for all the reasons you mentioned: the near perfect balance of adventure and emotional poignancy. It's a long time since I've read it but there's a particular scene in which there in a tower in the mountains...perhaps? And we get a glimpse into Yasmeen's background (perhaps?). Whatever the details I still remember how my chest ached during that scene.

It's heaps better than "The Iron Duke"; and you may not believe it can get better but "Riveted" is absolutely as good as "Heart of Steel".

I've noticed that it is a rare rare romance book which includes a fully realised heroine + hero. Usu when the heroines are really really good the men get stereotyped in some aspect.
6. AETierney
See? Now I have to go and read this! Thanks for the great review!
7. SandyH
I just cannot get into this series. I bought the first three books and the novella. I read the first two but just cannot get through Riveted. I have started it twice. I love the premise and world building but something is missing.
8. pamelia
"Creating secondary worlds is difficult at the best of times, and when
you're trying to create something as ambitious as an entire alternative
Europe with history diverging centuries before your setting's present
day, being able to just write ZOMBIES HERE over large chunks of the map is probably the only way to make the whole thing workable."
@ Alexis Hall: Have you tried the Kushiel books by Jacqueline Carey? She does a really good alt history take on Europe/Africa/Asia in those books.
As for this one I have to say that I adored "Here There Be Monsters" and "The Iron Duke", but both this one and "Riveted" didn't really grab onto me and both took me rather a long time to read as a result. I never really felt invested in the characters in "Heart of Steel" even though I was so excited to read about them after Iron Duke. Ah well!
9. AlexisHall
I agree that HoS feels more like a romance novel and less like a romance novel and an adventure novel glued together in the middle but, interestingly, I think that makes both part of the book work better in that the adventure and the lovestory complement rather than distract from each other. Of course, part of the reason Brook can do that is because TiD did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of world building etc. Apart from bodyshape, which was a really minor issue, let’s face it, I really liked Archimedes too. I’m quite into that gentleman adventurer type thing.

My pleasure, glad you enjoyed it. Because I’m a bit pathological, I’d point out this is book two in a series, the first one being The Iron Duke. On the other hand, I liked it a lot more than The Iron Duke so if you’re not fussy about starting series midway through like I am, then this is a great jumping-in point. (I still liked TiD, by the way, just not as much as this one).

Zombies, why did it have to be zombies ;)

Basically, what you said :) All those things are awesome.
I remember being really shocked when Yasmeen threw Archimedes off her ship in TiD because I was all like “hey, I really liked that character” but you think I’d have read enough to comics to remember that you should never believe someone is dead until you’ve seen the body.

I really liked both the hero and the heroine of this one; I especially liked how uncompromising Brook allows Yasmeen to be. She’s always kind of the Captain, even when she’s lost the ship. And I liked the fact that there was never any suggestion that Archimedes was in competition with her. She has her thing, he has his, they both shine in their own areas. I think the only reason that Archimedes’ body type tripped me up was because I’d got used to him being quite different the rest of the time and, as I say, I identify quite strongly with that type of character. Not that I’ve fought many zombies recently.
In my review of TiD, a few people mentioned that there might be a Scalesdale book coming, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Thank you for the recs - *drowns* ;)

I can see why the Indiana Jonesy bit wouldn’t work for everybody in that there’s a lot of “go here, fight some zombies, go there, fight some more zombies” but, what can I say, I’m shallow, I really like zombies ;) Plus I actually thought Brook did a really interesting job of doing world building and relationship arc against the backdrop of just fighting zombies.

I’ve no idea what shinaynay means but I think I’ll adopt it ;)
You get little drips of Yasmeen’s backstory through HoS and you learn about the order of genetically ninja assassins she was brought up by, and I quite liked how “bits and piecesy” (yes, that’s technical lingo) it was, because you don’t really find out what happened when she was in Constantinople or what her upbringing was really like, but you get enough to build up a picture of who she is.

I agree that its usual – at least in my experience – to get romances where the hero and heroine are both fully developed and I think this is one of the areas where HoS is stronger than TiD because I found Rhys very “must possess this woman now for no reason”. I think it helps that they’ve got got quite clear archetypes, neither of which are really romancey archetypes. They’re both swashbuckling adventurers who go on swashbuckling adventures and happen to fall in love.

I’ve heard really good things about Riveted as well. I’ll probably return on the series at some point in the future.

Yes, Anne, yes you do :)

I think I’d probably say what I always say about series which is that you either buy the basic concept or you don’t. I think, for me, HoS was better than TiD and a lot of people have said Riveted is better again but, I think, fundamentally if a book just doesn’t grab you, then the series won’t either because you just spend all your time waiting for it to click and getting increasingly stressed that it doesn’t.

I had similar thing with Breaking Bad recently. I’ve watched practically the whole thing despite the fact I was actively not enjoying it after about Season Two and it got to the point where I was spending so much time wondering when it was going to the bit I would enjoy that I couldn’t enjoy any of it.
10. cleo
Fun review. Sky pirates ftw. I agree that HoS is a more satisfying romance than TiD. And Riveted is just as good, if not better.

Is Warrior by Zoe Archer on your list? It also has that Indiana Jones vibe. And the series has gentleman explorers who are not imperialist bastards - not so much in Warrior but in a couple of the others. It's not quite as amazing as Brook's steampunk but it's a lot of fun.
11. jillie
What think ya about Here There be Monsters. My fave heroine in the bunch and I guess the most relatable.
12. Malin
Oh, I'm so glad you finally read this. Sky pirate heroines are the best! It's by far my favourite "Iron Seas" novel, and the romantic tension between Archimedes and Yasmeen is so well done. Did you read the sequel novella "Tethered" as well? It has more interaction with Archimedes' sister (who is the heroine of Brooks' upcoming "The Kraken King"). It's also great, and it's nice to see how the couple work a while after their initial HEA.
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