Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Book Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Title: Ironskin
Author: Tina Connolly
Publisher:  Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

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


Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
Publisher: Prime Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

For someone who claims to enjoy science fiction, I have read surprisingly few full-length sci-fi books this year. First there was the retro superhero novel. Then there was the space opera. And now we come to another esteemed subgenre within sci-fi: Steampunk.

The Alchemy of Stone has few of the traditional trappings of steampunk – no goggles, no airships, no overwhelming sense of can-do Victorian optimism – but it does have an automaton. Mattie, to be precise: An emancipated automaton who was given independence by her creator, Loharri, after learning the skills of alchemy. This is unusual in that Loharri, as a Mechanic, is politically and spiritually opposed to the work done by the Alchemist’s guild, of which Mattie is now part. The Mechanics and the Alchemists have recently been at odds over the direction that their city’s growth should take (think of the Industrial Revolution), and this dispute has come to a head with dangerous results: Civil war is inevitable.

Mattie doesn’t care for political machinations, though, as she’s been requested to tackle an extremely unusual assignment – the gargoyles, the supernatural founders and protectors of the city, want her to use her alchemical skills to somehow transmogrify their stone bodies to flesh. This is no easy task, and she relies on an unusual network of outcasts to arrive at a solution: The soul of the now-deceased alchemist formerly given this assignment, the soul-smoker who houses that soul within his own flesh, and a refugee alchemist who uses the power of blood to weave her spells.

Out of context, all of these elements – automatons, magic, gargoyles, souls, revolution, etc – sound like an unusual mixture. Unfortunately, they also fail to cohere within the book itself. The most interesting narrative choice is which points of view are used in the story; most of it is told from Mattie’s perspective, but a series of smaller portions set in italics are told from the perspective of the gargoyles themselves, and they speak in first person plural to convey their thoughts as a collective. The gargoyle passages are quite lyrical. However, they feel removed from the main political friction that drives the rest of the narrative forward.

One major problem is that this political friction doesn’t have a sense of urgency. Half-hearted mentions are given to refugees taking jobs from city-dwellers and of people being sent off to nearby mines to die as slave labour, but this never feels fully rooted in the history of the setting. It’s telling that I keep on calling the location of the story itself “the city” instead of a definite name. According to the copy on the back cover, the city’s name is “Ayona” – but I had to rely on the book cover to know that, as I can’t recall the name “Ayona” being mentioned anywhere in the text itself. That should be a warning sign when reading any sort of speculative fiction.

This lack of historical context within the book is odd because in other respects the worldbuilding of The Alchemy of Stone is excellent. In particular, I loved the idea of a “soul-smoker” – the book’s equivalent of what we would call a sin-eater. These are people who go to houses haunted by ghosts, and then lure the ghosts down with a wad of burning opium; when the ghost is tempted down from the rafters by the smoke, the soul-smoker inhales the smoke, ghost and all, through a pipe. The ghost then inhabits the soul-smoker’s body, and can communicate mentally with its new host. Given the abundance of souls within the soul-smoker’s body, living people treat the soul-smoker as a pariah out of fear that prolonged close contact with him or her will cause their own souls to vacate their bodies and join the other souls congregated inside the smoker. As Mattie technically doesn’t have a soul, she has no fear of him, and their relationship provides mutual comfort and support. I would enjoy a book devoted to just the two of them talking together.

It’s Mattie’s relationships with other people in the book that I have more of a problem with. In particular, she falls in love with a secondary character in the novel, a rough and uncouth man she barely knows. This sudden realization of love makes little sense considering their limited contact. Secondly, on at least one occasion when they meet, he attempts to physically assault her and is prevented from doing so only by the sudden intervention of the gargoyles. Finally, their relationship culminates in what has got to be one of the oddest sex scenes I’ve ever read – maybe I’m a prude, or not particularly progressive, but it was weird to read about a human and an automaton consummating a relationship, especially when the latter party doesn’t have… ahem… all of the “parts” required.

This is nothing compared to the troubled relationship Mattie has to her creator, Loharri, however. Although he emancipated her, he refuses to relinquish the final hold he has on her: The small piece of metal used to wind up the cogs and gears in her chest that is – quite literally – the key to her heart.

It turns out that not only does he prevent her from attaining true freedom by keeping the one key that keeps her gears in working order, but he also 1) builds a mechanism in her brain that causes her to undergo system failure if she thinks about consulting him but does not do so, and 2) uses her to spy on her Alchemist colleagues without her knowledge. Their relationship is an unhealthy one in every sense of the word.

There are few other things I could mention about why this book troubles me so, but I’ve gone on long enough. If this is the case, why am I still giving the book 3 stars out of 5? I’m willing to give it a pass because of the quality of the prose and because of its worldbuilding. In other words, it’s got great skin – it just needs a better set of bones.

Up next: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente