Annika has grown up in a small secluded village in Iceland, populated entirely by women, who have kept it well-hidden through stories of witches and trolls in the area. She’s been travelling for four years, trying to find her sister, who took the blame for Annika’s nearly revealing the location of the town to the outside world, had a massive row with the elders, and left.
David Kentewess is a vulcanologist desperate to find the village Annika is from, as his mother’s dying words was that he bury an heirloom necklace by the sacred mountain close to where she was born. When he meets Annika, he recognises her accent, and tries desperately to share her secrets. While drawn to David, Annika can’t reveal the secrets of her home and the women there, whether threatened or cajoled. And before long, both Annika and David have much more to worry about than their growing attraction to each other and whatever promises they made to their families.
I will say this for Meljean Brook, after The Iron Duke and Heart of Steel, I thought I knew a little bit of what to expect. I was wrong. Well, I expected clever writing and interesting world building, and multi-faceted characters who I’d enjoy reading about, and I got all that. But story wise, this was completely different from the other two Iron Seas novels, and the start of the novel gave me absolutely no hints of where the story was going to end up. Suffice to say, Annika and David are absolutely nothing like the protagonists of the previous two novels Brook has written in her alternate history, pseudo-Victorian Steampunk world.
Annika has been raised purely by women, in a community where women either go off to get pregnant (some stay with their baby daddies if they have sons), or bring home foundling girls from other places. Same sex relationships are very common, to the point where Annika clearly feels slightly sad that she hasn’t seemed to find a romantic relationship with any of the girls she grew up with. Nick-named “Rabbit” growing up, she still finds the tremendous courage to go off into the wider world to find her sister, visiting a number of new places on the airship where she serves as an engineer, and David is both amused and baffled by her lack of self-insight when he sees her many acts of self-sacrifice and bravery throughout the story.
David lost an arm and both his legs, and sustained a fair amount of facial scarring, in a horrible accident as a child, and his mother died to save him. He now has a mechanical eye-piece over part of his face, and mechanical limbs to replace the ones he lost. Most people naturally have trouble seeing past his artificial additions, and women especially seem either repulsed by him or excessively pity him. So when Annika, unused to men in general, treats him with kindness and openness, he’s drawn to her even before he recognises her accent to be the same as his mother’s. In no way an alpha male, David is deeply reluctant to pursue Annika, because of his previous bad luck around women.
The development of their friendship and later romance is a wonderful, slow and gradual process (frankly, both characters were almost too convinced of the other’s disinterest and so reluctant to approach the other that I wanted to reach into the book and shake them both). Yet I’d rather the character have time to get to know each other properly before they declare they madly love each other than fall into instant lust and/or love.
As I’ve come to expect in Brook’s novels, the world building is excellent, and while the first third of the story is very slow and sets up Annika and David’s relationship and gives us their back stories, once the plot takes a sharp turn, it’s frankly action and adventure and unexpected plot twists until the end. As in the other two Iron Seas novels, there are several breath taking action sequences that kept me at the edge of my seat, and once the story got going, I really didn’t want to put the book down. While Heart of Steel is still my absolute favourite, this is a decent second, and I can’t wait to see what Meljean Brook is going to give us next.