Review: Riveted by Meljean Brook

But she wasn’t on another ship—and instead of a bird shitting in his eye at the port gates, an answer to an old prayer had landed in his lap in the form of a vibrant woman. Such mad luck.
Riveted by Meljean Brook

Riveted by Meljean Brook

Iceland! Monocles! Vulcanologists!

Riveted, the third installment in Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series, has a lot of appeal on the surface, but its real richness is the layered, complex exploration of identity against the backdrop of a skillfully-developed steampunk world. 

I wasn’t a fan of the first book in this series, The Iron Duke. (Laura’s review echoes my sentiments.) However, I was extremely impressed by the world-building, which led me to try the first steampunk novel I’ve truly enjoyed, Heart of Steel (which has one of the worst covers in the history of bad covers). Heart of Steel was just pure fun, a wholly entertaining classic adventure tale. 

In Riveted, Brook takes readers to another part of the Iron Seas world: Iceland. A volcanic eruption caused Icelanders to evacuate the island a century prior, but legends about witches and trolls still inhabiting the island abound.

A century before, in the years following an eight-month fissure eruption, the Mist Terrors decimated livestock and crops. Ash fell in thick layers over the land, and toxic volcanic gases poisoned half the island’s inhabitants. The remaining population had been forced to flee or face starvation. Except for a few ports and fishing villages, Iceland had been abandoned for a hundred years.

However, the mythical creatures of abandoned Iceland are actually the work of Icelanders who secretly remained—a colony of women who will do anything to keep their village hidden from outsiders.

Annika grew up in that village of women (who primarily, but not exclusively, are lesbians or bisexual—there’s a very fluid sort of sexuality in this community) and left in search of her beloved sister Kalla, who was exiled for endangering the community. She facilitates her search for Kalla by working in the engine room of an airship, looking for her at their ports of call. 

Annika encounters David at one of those ports, where he is preparing to board her airship en route to an expedition. He’s a vulcanologist (that’s the study of volcanoes, y’all—what a badass job), but he’s also hell-bent on finding his mother’s home (in Iceland) so he can bury her runes, which he carried with him for 20 years. David has two prosthetic legs, a prosthesis for a hand and a monocle-type lens embedded in one eye.

Disabled during a terrible accident, David eventually had the metal prostheses grafted onto his body, meaning that he’s also infected with the nanoagents introduced to the Old World by the Horde to control the populations (much of the story behind the nanoagents is addressed in The Iron Duke, but it’s also discussed on the author’s website); the nanoagent infection means that he is also unwelcome in many parts of the New World. He is part-indigenous and has a number of facial scars, in addition to being significantly differently-bodied (for lack of a better term), so despite David’s skills as a naturalist, people generally avoid him. 

David’s interest in Annika is piqued because, despite that she claims that she’s Norwegian, her recognizes her accent as the same as his late mother’s—and he thinks Annika will be able to give him information about where to bury his mother’s runes. 

These two characters are fascinating because David and Annika have both defined themselves by how they are perceived by others. 

Annika was labeled by her friends and family in her village as “a little rabbit,” timid and ready to flee at the first sign of danger. She loves colorful fabric and ribbons, collecting them at the airship’s many stops, sewing wild outfits for herself and sending special bolts back home. 

Annika often picked up items on request, or things that she believed her people could use or enjoy. She also bought far too much fabric to keep aboard Phatéon. Though Vashon allowed her some space in the cargo hold, it was hardly enough for four years’ worth of purchases. Annika regularly sent the extra bolts of material home, where the women could use it—or put it aside until she returned.

What’s fascinating is that on the airship, Annika is seen as a capable member of the crew, reliable and hard-working. She’s not the “rabbit” she thinks of herself as. And David too sees her as clever and independent. In the outside world, the only person who doesn’t see Annika for who she is, is Annika. 

David, on the other hand, has isolated himself from other people in many ways, not forming close connections, because he’s viewed as freakish—he doesn’t know how to cope with physically interacting with other people, which is the most heartbreaking aspect of his character.

The lump in his throat had grown, making it difficult to manage even that. The warmth of any touch was so rare that David never noticed the absence until he felt it again—and his aunt touched him so freely, without reservation.

He’s stayed away from women to protect himself from the pain of their revulsion at his strange body (he’s had two very ill-fated encounters with prostitutes). He takes care to keep his metal prostheses covered and hasn’t formed close relationships with other people since he was “enhanced.” 

Annika, however, doesn’t see David as frightening. Instead, because she’s not of their world either, she’s enthralled by technological marvel of his enhancements. 

The stranger didn’t retreat. He looked to Annika, and the turn of his head offered a better impression of the features between his hat brim and gray wool scarf. He possessed a clean-shaven jaw, perhaps in the native style—or simply because a beard would never grow in evenly. Pale scars raked the left side of his face, with several wide, ragged stripes running diagonally from forehead to cheek. Oh! And that was not a monocle at all, but some sort of optical contraption that had been embedded into his temple, which shielded his left eye with a dark, reflective lens. Utterly marvelous. What could he see through that? 

I’m most struck by how neither of these characters are entirely what you’d expect—they’re very multi-dimensional.  

Annika is tough, but she’s not a “kick-ass” female lead—she’s both vulnerable and strong, girly and clever. David is kind and good (yay!), but he’s also pretty much a badass, able to trek long distances over the ice and fight when need be. As much as I enjoyed Heart of Steel, both characters in that book cleverly fit into character types (kickass female, beta male), as did the characters in The Iron Duke (character types I have huge issues with), with the world taking center stage for me.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’ve never been the brave one.”

“Who was?”

“Källa.” She settled her head against his shoulder again, rested her hand over his heart. “She was the one who would explore the New World. The one who’d leave and bring back tales that our children would repeat. She always wanted to have adventures, to face danger.”

“Has Källa has ever been swallowed by a giant mechanical whale that shoots a harpoon out of its blowhole?”

She had to smile. “Probably not.”

“You’ll have that story, then.” His thumb brushed over her cheek in a light caress, as if wiping away a tear. “You’ve had a hell of a day, Annika. Heimaey, Elena, now this. Crying over it is no reflection on your courage.” Annika buried her face again. Oh, he was the most wonderful person—and his words the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said to her. It had been an awful day.

Both Annika and David are complex and nuanced and while the world-building is extremely deft, the character growth for both is what invested me in Riveted. 

…he’d almost broken when her hand had found his, had all but shattered when her fingers entwined around steel as if there were no difference. As if to her, he was just a man—no more and no less.

I’m a reluctant reader of books categorized as straight-up romance—I am always looking for ones that interest me, because romance is the only genre that is generally written by women, for a female audience, and I think that’s an important thing. However, I have a very hard time finding books that appeal to me, because I have big issues with the traditional character types that are so common in the genre.

However, novels like Meljean Brook’s Riveted, Molly O’Keefe’s Can’t Buy Me Love and Rachel Vincent’s Shadow Bound really work for me, because they push the envelope in exploring the nuances of the characters as individuals. 

Riveted stands out even more because of the exploration of difference.

(In grad school we would have called this “Otherness,”—oh, I would have loved it if the students and professors in my Women’s Studies graduate program were made to read this book, it certainly would force them to take a long, hard look at their own stereotypes of romance writing.) 

Both Annika and David are “different” from the mainstream. Annika’s fluid notation of sexuality puts her at odds with the Victorian-style societal rules of the Irons Seas society. 

The loneliness of leaving home had been easier to bear with Elena—and initially, Annika had hoped that friendship might become more. But the passionate longing she dreamed of never developed and her guts never felt riveted, no matter how much Annika would have welcomed it at the time.

In her stops aboard the airship, she’s witnessed horrific brutality inflicted upon gay men (they were hanged in a heinous mob scene) and loses a friend because she discovers that her friend is a bigot, supporting the Victorian attitudes toward lesbians and the friend eventually learns of Annika’s origins in the Icelandic all-female village.

David’s differences are more obvious, and both characters’ unique qualities which keep them somewhat separate from mainstream society serve as a powerful metaphor that can easily translate to our own society’s difficulty with celebrating difference. This aspect of Riveted makes it stand-out as absolutely special, setting it apart from the previous novels in the Iron Seas world. 

These characters could easily stray into angsty and overwrought territory, but while an emotional read, Riveted remains refreshingly free from unnecessary drama. 

That’s not to say that Riveted is all business, all the time. 

It’s also a fantastic adventure story set aboard an airship and on a trek across Iceland. The steampunk elements are thoroughly fleshed out and a new technology makes an appearance—giant, mechanical trolls used for transit across Iceland. Yes, trolls! I’ve tried a lot of steampunk novels, both adult and young adult, and none of them have worked for me the way the world in the Iron Seas series has. It’s not just a backdrop—the world is a character itself. 

In Riveted, like in the other two installments of this series, the setting and the characters’ back-stories are slowly layered together; there’s none of the dreaded “info-dumping” in any of these books. It makes me wish that more historical novelists would take this approach to developing their setting and characters. Each page of Riveted is a tiny discovery, making the journey with Annika and David very rich and rewarding. 

In the spectrum of Iron Seas novels, I think Riveted will be adored by readers who were not as enthusiastic about the first two books (especially The Iron Duke). On the other hand, readers who enjoyed the more traditional characters and story of the previous two novels may find Riveted too much of a slow burn. It’s categorized as romance, but the third installment in the Iron Seas series is a novel I would feel comfortable enthusiastically recommending to folks who usually shy away from both romance and steampunk because the character development is so strong and the story is very multi-layered.

Riveted could be read as a standalone novel, but I do suggest checking out the backstory on the world prior to reading this book.  

{Buy Riveted at Amazon | BN | Book Depository | iBooks}

{Add it on Goodreads}

FNL Character Rating: Jason Street and Erin, minus the baby drama. 

Previous CEFS reviews of the Iron Seas series:

The Iron Duke (Laura)

Heart of Steel (Sarah) 

Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.

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