This weekend I read Sherwood Smith's Coronets and Steel, which is a totally fun Prisoner of Zenda riff that I recommend. It reminded me a bit of Mary Stewart, possibly because of the first-person young female narrator in a foreign country meeting a hot guy and having adventures. But it also has fantasy elements. I want a sequel. *hint, hint*
I also read The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook. A while back, I read the first in her long paranormal romance series, and while I enjoyed that book, I found it a bit cluttered. This book didn't have that issue, except for the first scene, which I found confusing. After that short scene, however, it raced along quickly, and I had a lot of fun seeing all the nifty details Brook had built up.
The setting is England, for the most part, with brief forays to France (overrun by zombies!) and airship-views of drowned Venice (also zombie-infested!) and the west coast of Africa (site of a huge market in all things legal, semi-legal, and illegal). It's what would be the nineteenth century in our world, I think, except that England has only in the last decade shaken off a two-hundred-year occupation by The Horde, i.e., the Mongols, who still colonize the rest of Europe and Asia.
I'd call the novel steampunk, though the most important sf element is nanotechnology, which The Horde uses to either control people (blunting emotions, physically freezing, or inducing sexual frenzy to increase population) or to render an area uninhabitable by humans so they can use machines to harvest resources (the reason for making people into zombies who are, essentially, rabid). Human modifications for industrial use are made possible by the "bugs" that offer them increased healing speed and protect humans against high soot levels from factories.
One by-product of the two-century occupation is more equal gender roles in England, so the heroine, Mina, is a Detective Inspector with Scotland Yard. However, her unknown father was from the Horde, so she is visibly different, and suffers a great deal from random racial abuse. One other part-Asian character is shown, and I found myself wondering why there wouldn't be many more, after 200 years of occupation; wouldn't society have had to come to some sort of accommodation by the time of the story, or was that prevented because the nanotech suppressed emotion? Or was Mina's situation an improvement on previous times?
Additional conflict is provided by the Bounders, those who fled England, Europe, etc. for the New World before the Horde fully took over. Many Bounders from England have now returned, bringing with them lots of money and different ideas about what England should be.
The novel's hero is the titular "Iron Duke," a former pirate who's responsible for bringing down the Horde occupation (he destroyed their radio tower, which they used to control the nanobots). He's essentially an Alpha Romance Hero and provides a lot of the pulp adventurous parts of the plot. I liked that he did a terrible job romancing Mina for a large portion of the book, which made me like him more.
Mostly, what I wanted from this book was more! I was very curious about The Horde and their technology, and about a brief mention of their occupation of India; the pov we're given is all stereotypical Yellow Peril. There are numerous mentions of the New World, where things shook out very differently from our world, and I wanted to know all about that (a map would've been awesome); American Natives were mentioned at least once, but only in passing; I wanted to know how their sovereignty had held up in this different world where it seemed a lot of different colonizers were controlling territory.
Anyway, if there was another book in this series, I'd read it. If you read it, let me know what you think!