The publication date for serial-as-book came and went, though, and somehow I never pulled The Kraken King to the top of my TBR ebook pile. Only after my teen daughter began plowing through every fantasy romance book could recommend to her this past summer, including Meljean Brook's Iron Seas titles, did I remember that I myself hadn't yet read the latest addition to the series.
Unlike Zenobia, the heroines of Brook's previous Iron Seas books had all been empowered, kick-ass warriors, fighting side by side with their equally kick-ass future mates. How would Zenobia, whose greatest superpower is her ability to wield a pen, survive, never mind prove herself heroine material, I wondered?
The opening of The Kraken King has Zenobia taking a small step out of the shadows, leaving home and hearth to set off halfway across the world with a childhood friend who is traveling to the Red City in Australia (in the alternate history Iron Seas world, Europe has been overrun by zombies; the "Golden Horde" [i.e. the Mongols] control much of the world through despotism and nanotechnology; and Australia has been partially colonized by Nippon [aka Japan]). Though in the wake of multiple kidnappings, Zenobia has hired two bodyguards (just in case), nothing of much event has occurred during the journey—just as she expected.
Sounds like the perfect set-up for a he-man rescues imperiled woman storyline, no? But in Brook's capable hands, Zenobia isn't forced to magically transform into a warrior-woman fighter or to reconcile herself to playing the damsel in the typical damsel-in-distress storyline. How?
In part, because Brooks uses an alternating point of view narrative, a narrative that shows us Zenobia through Ariq's perceptive eyes. Ariq falls for Zenobia almost the moment he first sees her—but not from unmotivated "insta-lust." As Brook's describes it, "he remembered her expression when she'd jumped from the falling balloon. Serenity. Acceptance. As if her entire life had been leading to that moment and she faced it without fear" (30). Fighters, Ariq knows, are not the only ones who are brave. And when he begins talking with the woman he's pulled from the sea, and discovers that she also has a sense of humor as well as a quick, agile mind, he's even more drawn to Zenobia. Her unremarkable face, her unremarkable hair—none of it matters, not after he first looks into "her eyes like jade stones lit by an inner flame.... There was nothing unremarkable behind those green eyes—and this woman might have the power to lay waste to him. But if she did, he didn't want to fight it" (37). Throughout the story, Ariq interprets Zenobia for us, showing us how our expectations of heroine-ism might be blinding us to the kind of heroine that Zenobia is.
But she couldn't bear to wait. She couldn't bear to let Ghazan Bator determine the course of her life. She couldn't bear to let anyone decide who she would be or what she would do. Not anymore. And the thought of staying here on this ironship with a man who would use her to frighten her friends and threaten thousands of others? Who would wield her like a whip on Ariq's back? She'd rather burn the ship down and sink with it.
Yet far better to escape—even if she died trying. And if this meant her death, maybe the effort would be all for nothing.
But if she lived, that effort would mean everything. (303)
Zenobia does not train to be a fighter, nor does she magically gain new skills that enable her to overcome stronger foes. But she does discover the power of refusing to be driven against her will, a power that she will have to draw on throughout the second half of the novel in order to survive.
And finally, because Brook brings Zenobia to the realization that courage does not mean a lack of fear. In fact, fear is at the very heart of courage—the courage to fight against tyranny, yes, but also the courage to accept love.
The Kraken King