on December 27, 2010
Even more than this novel, the overwhelmingly positive reactions to it bothered me. After some time I realized, that if I wanted my concerns voiced, I would have to write a review myself. So here it is.
THE IRON DUKE is the start to a steampunk romance series by Meljean Brook, who is better known for her paranormal Guardian series. It's my first book by this author and probably my last. If I could split the steampunk from the romance, I'd give the former 4.5 stars and the latter zero. The novel is an odd mixture of originality and romance clichés, subtle socio political nuances and romantic sledgehammer tactics. The character of the hero and his "good" rape of the heroine were deeply problematic in my eyes.
The "good" rape is a cliché often found in old school romances, where the heroine is not raped by a villain, but by her hero. The consent of the heroine is substituted by the (unconscious) consent of the reader, who knows that there is going to be a Happy End between rapist and victim eventually. The rape is used as a turning point in the story. Starting with this event everything that stands between a romantic and/or sexual relationship between hero and heroine is moved aside. The heroine gets over the trauma quickly and is allowed to live out her sexuality. In a way this ultimate loss of power empowers her. Since the power to say "no" was taken away from her, she might as well say yes and enjoy it. The victim also gains power over her rapist, who has to repent his act of sexual violence in order to become an ideal lover and/or husband and thus fulfill the HEA recquirement. On top of it the hero always has some (not) good excuses. Intoxication (substance abuse or some magical quirk), misinformation (she wasn't an adulteress, she was a virgin!) and an horrible childhood are the most popular ones. After all the heroine and the reader have to forgive him his rape and grovelling alone doesn't do it.
Rhys Trahaearn is the Iron Duke, a pirate turned war hero. Socially untouchable and though a mutation physically superior he is he archetype of the dark, tormented alpha hero. Already on page 36 he confesses "his urgent need to possess" Mina. "Take", "possess", have" and "mine" are his favourite words.
On page 64 Mina analyses the danger she finds herself in: "So this is how it would be? When pirates took over a ship, they usually gave the crew a choice between keeping their positions under a new captain, abandonment, or death. What choice would he give to her? She accepted his offer, or he ruined her family? Or would he simply rape her here? What could Trahaearn do to her family that he Horde hadn't already done? Nothing. And her family had always fought back, always, survived. The only danger he posed was to Mina's person and her career - but no matter the damage he caused, she would survive that, too."
If Mina wants to save her brother and support her impoverished family with her earnings as an inspector, she has to deal with Rhys and his constant attempts to get her into his bed. Rhys knows Mina is in a tight spot and makes sure she can't get away from him. He also knows there is a strong sexual attraction between them and doesn't concern himself with Minas misgivings. What she wants isn't important to him until after the rape and even then he doesn't quite get the ramifications of what a sexual relationship would mean for Mina (public ostracism and humiliation, loss of livelihood, danger to her health and life).
Still, over time Rhys gets to Mina. She's not immune to the sexual attraction, his war hero status or his alpha charm. But she always says no.
On page 227 Rhys rapes Mina. The way the rape is narrated, the method and the fluid consent show me, that Meljean Brook must have thought long and hard to make the rape as inoffensive as possible for the reader: Mina and Rhys are drunk - always a popular excuse. Then Mina consents to a making out session, which leads over to other sexual acts that she doesn't consent to. Drunk as he is, Rhys doesn't recognize her refusal (pushing him away, janking his hair, crying, saying no ...). His method of rape is cunnilingus and he does it until she orgasms, but doesn't get off himself. Since we are in Rhys' head for this scene, we don't experience the terror Mina must have felt, because even as she climaxes Mina doesn't want to have sex.
This "good" rape (oh, how I hate this term) is a turning point in Minas and Rhys relationship. Rhys repents and grants Mina power over himself. She stops being something to be conquered (after all he already managed that in a way) and her goals and desires become more important to him. He also "grants" her distance - he won't pursue her anymore unless she comes to him first. He gives her back the power of refusal that he has taken away by force. Rhys' repentance makes him human - changes the way he views Mina and the world.
Mina cries into her handkerchief for a few hours, but then she consents to a sexual relationship with the Iron Duke. Since the power to say "no" was taken away from her, she might as well say yes and enjoy it.
I can't begin to tell you how horrified I am by the character of the hero, the "good" rape and its execution. I simply lack the words.
To all of you who think Rhys is sexy, I'd like to give you a little mental experiment.
Consider his character and everything he does and then think about whether you'd like your mother/daughter/sister/friend to be in Mina's shoes. If the answer is a horrified "no", as it was with me, then maybe Rhys isn't as sexy after all.