"I don't have a man." When she saw his triumph, Mina added, "But you have nothing to offer me, sir. I answer to no one. I must make time only for myself. Can you offer better than absolute freedom?" (62)
Part of Vaginal Fantasy Rewind
This was the main pick for Vaginal Fantasy when Soulless was the alt, still towards the beginning of the club.
In an alternate history, steampunk-y England, Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth is called to investigate a murder at the estate of the Iron Duke, aka Rhys Trahaearn. Who could guess it would be the start of a grand adventure? When Mina discovers the identity of the body, and pursues leads to find the killer, she unwittingly uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the lives of everyone in England, as well as a beloved brother aboard an English Navy ship. Traveling via airship to France and then to the Ivory Market in Africa, Mina and Rhys must work together to save the world! (Okay, the people in the world that they know and to whom they're emotionally attached...)
Ugh. Guys, I wanted to like this. I really did. And there were so many things that I really enjoyed. But I hated the male lead, and the "ambiguity" of some of the intimate encounters, so much that it kind of ruined it for me. Maybe it's because I read Soulless before this one?
Okay, let me try to unpack this a bit in a semi-orderly manner. I have a lot of feelings so this is probably going to be a long post. When I first started writing this, I opened with all of my issues with it, but maybe I'll try to sandwich good-bad-good to alleviate the frustration.
One of the strongest things in my mind was the worldbuilding. The whole alternate history with the Horde and the nanobots was one of the most interesting things I've ever read. I love the whole idea of steampunk, and if all of the steampunk books have surroundings which are as artfully crafted as this one, they would be off to a good start. The technology, especially Mina's mom's inventions, reminded me of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; again, can't go wrong there. Who doesn't love Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? (Side note: If you don't love Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I don't think we can be friends anymore.) The tech-medical capabilities were astounding, not only with the healing and strengthening power of the nanobots, but also things like prosthetic limbs for amputees.
In line with that, there were a lot of really sex-positive things happening. When they went to the Blacksmith's and there were what amounted to sybian machines, and then the little butterfly that her mom created, it's clear that sexuality is something that is being explored in this society. That may be as a manner of reclaiming the control that people felt they had lost as a result of the Frenzies—I don't know. Regardless of the reason, it was refreshing to see. It actually reminded me of how vibrators were long considered a cure for hysteria—obviously a woman's disease, emphasized by the root of the word being Greek for uterus. Doctors started treating women with "pelvic massages" and by using vibrators during the Victorian era in Great Britain, so that lined up perfectly. As a history nerd, even with the understanding that there's a component of alt history here, that was nice to see. (I first thought about In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, which I've heard a lot about but never seen.)
Now let's get down to the real issues I had. I really don't like men in books like this who are like, "I will have you, and you will like it, and you will beg for it." Like, dude, we just met five minutes ago. Maybe cool it for at least another five? Men like this in stories are just pursuing a woman and it's romantic and charming. If that was a woman character acting that way, she'd be considered crazy and obsessive. In fact, there's a whole subgenre of films dedicated to exactly that kind of girl. Maybe the reasoning behind this is that it feels good to feel wanted, and then just taken to the nth degree? I don't know, but I am getting more and more disillusioned with this particular device.
Then on top of that you've got the borderline assault that is their first sexual experience together, and really some of the encounters after that are questionable. I just found myself noting on my Kindle, "that's so effed up" so many times. The VagFan ladies talked about this a great deal during the Hangout, and it seemed to have been discussed on the forums as well, but essentially their first intimate experience is when they're both drunk, and Rhys goes downtown on Mina. Immediately afterwards, this happens: "He looked up and his heart froze. There was no desire on her face. No ecstasy, no contentment. Only tears. Devastation. Oh, Christ no. Realization hit him, a sick punch to his gut. Her protests hadn't been what he'd thought. And this hadn't been making love to her." (229, emphasis added) I think that's pretty clear that it wasn't consensual. "Her protests hadn't been what he'd thought." Yeah, they were probably actual protests. Now, because the book is told from an omniscient point of view, we as the audience know that Mina is maybe into it but has some trauma from her past that is affecting her. (Rhys also has trauma that may be affecting his judgment, but we'll get to that later.) But Rhys doesn't know what's going on in Mina's head, and yet continued on his merry way despite her protests. Promptly after the above quote, she shoots him with a tranquilizer dart from her gun and leaves to sleep in a separate room; that's not a great sign that it was consensual, either.
Taking a moment to give a tiny bit of background: before Rhys destroyed a tower, basically everyone in London was under the control of the Horde; every once in a while, the Horde would use that power to instigate a Frenzy, which was basically an insatiable lust-filled moment in time designed to re-stock the Horde's supply of babies. Not only is Mina the result of a Frenzy, she experienced one herself just before the tower fell. She was actually with her friend Felicity, so she seems to think it could have been a lot worse, but she is understandably terrified of the feelings of arousal because they have negative associations in her memory. Rhys, in turn, was sold as an eight year old in the Ivory Market and prostituted for years of his life. We find out that essentially Mina's the only woman he's actually ever had feelings for, because he also has negative associations with sex.
Like, yes, I can see what Felicia's saying during the Hangout: Rhys has this background and it's all that he knows. BUT I also think this is no excuse for perpetuating a cycle of abuse. Maybe it's because of my own history with abuse that I have no tolerance for that. Or maybe it's because it hits too close to home, society-wise, in that we still struggle with the "no means yes" misconception. Perhaps if we were completely beyond the existence of young men who are flabbergasted to find that they have been accused of rape because they were involved in situations exactly like the one represented it would've been easier to stomach.
That said, I actually thought that Mina's reactions were an intelligent way to deal with what was essentially sexual assault in her past. This sentence kind of solidified the whole concept: She couldn't take away the Frenzy, or the panic that her need summoned. (236) From my own experience, I used to have random panic attacks from seemingly innocuous triggers, so I could really relate to that and thought it was handled well. You know, until some more sexual assault was piled on top of it.
Later, when Mina realizes that her feelings for Rhys are real, and that she can learn to separate those real feelings from the memories of the Frenzy, they engage in consensual sex. But even after that, the next morning, this happens: "She was still only half awake when he pushed inside her." (289) Dude, she did not invite you, and merely because you wake up in bed together doesn't mean you're just entitled to enter someone whenever you want.
And the coercion to help her rescue her brother. Before any of the carnal ridiculousness happened, when Rhys is still trying to convince Mina that obviously she belongs with him, he says that he'll go rescue her younger brother if she agrees to sleep with him. He asks her if her brother isn't worth that to her. Here's her response and the further exchange: "Yes, Your Grace, he is. Which means that I would be in your service for a very long time, because Andrew's worth is a hundred thousand times greater than any man who uses a threat on his life to strong-arm me into bed." Amusement touched his hard mouth. "I take my opportunities where I find them, inspector." (94) This was one of those many times where I noted how effed this situation was. There were at least five other times where I highlighted Rhys's lack of respect for Mina's boundaries, or when he thought that her "no's" were merely the start of a negotiation. Or this exchange.
"Your Grace, don't—"
His big hands caught her hips—and her guns. Too slow, Mina reached for her weapons and grabbed his fingers instead.
Blast. Damn and blast. Wary, she looked up at him.
His gaze settled on her mouth. "Have you been kissed before, inspector?"
"Why?" If he wanted virgin lips, she'd claim to have serviced an army.
"If it's your first, I'll do it differently."
"You won't do it at all."
"Yes, I will." (171)
After which I noted, "Dude, you are not a good listener." Troubling.
I also totally agree with Veronica about Rhys being a vastly different character in the first half of the book and the second half of the book. He goes from this:
And now he saw why he had nothing to interest her. She was surrounded by people who would die to protect her, and that she would die for in return. He wanted to be one of them. But he needed to take her away from the others, so that she'd see that he could be one of them. (183)to this:
His jaw tightened. How could he tell her what not to be? She wasn't part of his crew, to be ordered around. And he hadn't been there to stop her, to protect her. Short of chaining her down, he had to accept this. (311)
That's pretty inconsistent character development in my mind, especially since there wasn't a growth to this new point of respect for her autonomy; it was just a series of "mine, mine, mine" until all of a sudden he was like, "But I can't tell her what to do." What?
I could probably go on for pages more about my problems with Rhys, but instead I'll move back to the things I enjoyed. Effectually I loved all the characters except Rhys. The Blacksmith was badass, fashioning synthetic limbs and building Victorian-era Hulkbusters. I always love a good engineer/mechanic type. Our heroine Mina was (mostly) this self-sufficient, self-possessed, independent woman, and I loved it. The fact that she hung by a rope from an airship and speared a kraken through the eye...it just doesn't get much better than that. Mina's constable Newberry was lovely and unassuming, and the best ones usually are. Scarsdale, Rhys's first mate, was the well-intentioned drunkard who it turns out is actually gay; I would love to read his story and find that facade of the happy-go-lucky guy torn down by some hot pirate lad. Yasmeen, the captain of the airship, was one of my absolute favourites. I might actually read the second book—since Felicia said it's less assault-y—because I'm intrigued by her. I'm fairly certain that she has some sort of spliced cat DNA, and that makes me think of Dark Angel, so we'll see if I get that far.
I'll end with this quote from the book which I found poignant: Dead people of all sorts were more tolerable than most of those living. (51) You and me both, sister.
Find out what the Vaginal Fantasy ladies thought of The Iron Duke in the Hangout video below!
Have you read The Iron Duke? What did you think of the love scenes? Do you think that first one was understandable considering Rhys's background? I'd love to hear your thoughts.