Note: this review contains spoilers.
Jane Eliot is a veteran of The Great War against the fey. The five years since the end of the war have not been kind to her, however, as the lingering scar on her cheek – as well as the iron mask she wears to cover it – signal to all that she has been cursed by fey magic.
After failing to hold down a string of teaching jobs, Jane has only one option left: to become a governess. In particular, she’s found a delicately-worded listing asking for assistance with a “special” child – one born during the Great War. Jane has pieced together the signs and realizes that the child, like she, is fey-cursed. She takes the job because she’s convinced that she can help this child overcome the same problems she has had to face.
Of course, life in her new home at Silver Birch Manor is more difficult than she imagined. For one thing, Dorie’s fey abilities are both unique and frightening. For another, Dorie’s father, Edward Rochart, is a distant, forbidding man, and the moors outside his house hold many secrets. How exactly does Silver Birch Manor get its inexhaustible supply of fey technology when it is so scarce everywhere else? Why do Rochart and his servant Martha constantly go into the forest bordering the manor? And why does Rochart host so many other women at his house, only to release them back into the outside world looking as beautiful as the fey themselves?
As Jane encounters these and other mysteries, she realizes that there may be a way to shed the fey curse that has ruined her face – although, as always, things aren’t quite what they seem.
So, before I go any further here, let me state a few things up front. Yes, this story is a retelling of Jane Eyre. Yes, it involves fairies. Yes, it also involves steampunk. If you have a problem with these things, stop reading now – because goddammit, this book is fun. Go find a mouldering library to sit in and grumble about literary purity for all I care, because you won’t be missed.
There. Now that we’ve got the Sacred Arbiters of English Literature off our backs, let’s get back to business.
Ironskin is a fun book. It plays with the plot of Jane Eyre, but takes it in new directions, reinventing some aspects of Jane’s background from whole cloth. For example, gone are her miserable extended family and her subsequent education at Lowood. Instead, Helen, the saintly classmate from the original book, is now Jane’s sister and has been radically re-imagined as a woman desperately trying to come to terms with her own cowardice in the face of Jane’s iron resolve.
However, certain story beats remain the same. The mysterious forest on the edge of Rochart’s property, as well as the its inhabitant, are a direct analogue for the attic originally found in Jane Eyre. Although I deduced the true nature of the forest early on in the novel, this was no doubt intentional on Connolly’s part.
I’ve mentioned Tina Connolly elsewhere on my blog. Having read a few of her stories, and having listened to all of the episodes in her Toasted Cake podcast, it was remarkable to realize how entrenched her voice has become in my head. When I was reading Ironskin, I could tell that it was her writing it, and it was her voice delivering the descriptions and dialogue in my mind.
The book’s biggest strength is its world-building. Five years ago, British society depended on fey technology, but the Great War’s onset spurred Britain to restart the Industrial Revolution. In this story, the fey are incorporeal, immortal beings who can inhabit the bodies of dead humans. Of course, doing so gives them human frailties; the only way to kill a fey for good is by jabbing some sharpened iron into the vein of a fey-ridden corpse.
On top of all that, dwarves exist (though they’re called dwarvven here) and have closed themselves off from both fey and human interaction. Although they are master craftsmen, they also love stories and poetry, the more outsized and romantic the better – they were even important cultural figures in Queen Maud’s court back in the day. Jane uses this fact to her advantage when she bribes a half-dwarvven character with a copy of The Pirate Who Loved Queen Maud in exchange for some finely-wrought iron. And, of course, as the author mentions in her recent “My Favourite Bit” post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, Shakespeare’s plays have been reimagined so that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now A Midsummer Night’s Tragedy.
As I said in my review of Seraphina, it’s the inventive details like this that make me love fantasy books so much.
However, despite these delights, the ending is rushed. Jane’s eventual discovery of Rochart’s true profession (he employs magic to make women beautiful using fey-infused masks of clay) dovetails with her revelation that her disfigured face allows her to manipulate magic herself. The Fey Queen then emerges to reveal her true plans: the masks that Rochart has been making are the perfect conduit to allow the fey to take control of living bodies, and not just the dead. As Rochart’s masks have now been fused onto several members of Britain’s ruling class, this spells disaster.
The final events of this book – the revelation about the Fey Queen, the true importance of Rochart’s masks, Jane’s attempt to claim a mask for her own, and a mad dash to London and back – are all crammed into the last 60 pages. Compared to the slow, atmospheric buildup of the book’s opening, I felt its climax – which includes an extremely gory scene I’ll let you discover on your own – should have been a chapter or two longer.
This is convenient for Connolly, though, as it leaves the closing passages open enough to accommodate the sequel that will be coming out next fall. First The Hum and the Shiver, then Seraphina, and now this – it seems I’m unconsciously committing to all sorts of series which will continue in 2013.
Up next: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi