Fiction review: Ironskin

Publisher: Tor Books
Review by Cheyenne Kam

Cover of the novel Ironskin: Brown-haired, light-skinned woman wearing a flowing grey dress and a grey mask, in a wooded setting.Ironskin is a YA novel touted as being a steampunk reverse-Beauty and the Beast, and while there are elements of both genres, it’s more accurate to say it’s a steampunk-fantasy Jane Eyre homage. Some aspects  of the novel work better than others, but the weaker portions are bolstered by a strong narrative voice, unpredictable twists, and very good world-building.

Spoilers ahead:

The action takes place in an alternate England around 1900, where a war against Faerie was won five years earlier. (Or was it?)  The world, which used to depend on fae energy to run its transportation and power, is now turning to coal-based and steam-based engines, with varying degrees of success. More painful for the survivors are the memories of loved ones who were possessed by fae attackers and had to be killed to be freed of their spirits, and the scars borne by those who survived fae attacks– scars which are psychic as well as physical, and can only be contained by iron masks and armor (“ironskin”), lest those around the victims be forced to experience the worst emotions of the survivors.

Jane Elliot wears an iron mask to contain the energy which would otherwise inflict on those around her the rage she feels at the loss of her family and her face, thanks to the war. She’s lost a handful of teaching jobs over recent years as each employer becomes uncomfortable with being around an ‘ironskin’, until the day she comes across an advertisement for a young girl needing a governess, a young girl with “special needs.”Jane is hopeful that she can help someone like herself learn to cope with their fae scars– but of course, all is not as it seems.

There’s no crazy wife in the attic, but Ironskin’s Mr. Rochart is as mysterious as his progenitor Mr. Rochester.  Unfortunately, the weakest part of the novel is the romance between him and Jane. There simply aren’t enough scenes between the two of them, when the story is told from Jane’s first-person viewpoint.  Her scenes with Dorie (her stubborn young student), her sister, the other servants, even one of Mr. Rochart’s mysterious clients are all sharper and more vivid than those between the two protagonists. Rochart is not sympathetic, but he’s not clear enough to even be unsympathetic.  Jane’s feelings for him seem to be due more to proximity than any other factor. In this, the book falls short of Jane Eyre and its various allusions to Beauty and the Beast.

On the other hand, the world-building–steampunk plus faerie–is new and original, and Jane herself is likable and strong.  Her slow realization that she needs to confront her own past in order to help Dorie is one of the better parts of the story. The true antagonists remain hidden over half the novel, but the world she moves through bears traces of their presence everywhere.  It’s a classic technology vs. magic confrontation, with humans in the middle.

The final showdown, though, is almost anticlimactic. Throughout the book, ideals of beauty, fears of the unearthly fae who crave that beauty, and Jane’s wish to be “just normal”are all treated with intelligence and looked at from opposing viewpoints. This makes the final transformation somewhat unsatisfying and conventional–though Jane’s defiance, and my favorite line in the book (“A defeated warrior is not a victim”) just about save it for me.

A sequel is due next year, and if it expands on this universe and the characters, than this will be a good prologue to a potentially very enjoyable series. I’m definitely going to take a chance on it, on the strength of this first installment.

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