My rating: Beach Vacation (3/5)
Ironskin is the first in a fantasy gaslamp trilogy that merges a Jane Eyre retelling with deadly fairies. Only they’re not really fairies… if you’re familiar with a wide range of “fairy” tales, they’re more “fey” than “fairy” – Less Neverland, more … otherworldly beings, pissed off at the humans who have taken over the world. Manipulative and dangerous, they certainly aren’t cute little fairies with wings.
What makes this world interesting is its mix of fey and gaslamp. The events take place in what feels like an alternate Between the Wars period (the World Wars, that is), where the Great War was actually fought against the fey, who resent the humans that have taken over their territory. Fey technology rules – humans traded for it before the war (because it’s easy, of course), and with supplies dwindling, have descended into something like a small dark age, because they never developed their own technology, having depended on what the fey sold them. Other technology is limited to somewhat primitive, alternate forms of power and locomotion. Magic really is under the control of the fey, who in this novel use it to surreptitiously continue their war against the humans in pretty gruesome ways. Dwarves make their home here, as well as fey and humans, and they may be the most interesting characters of all. Also affected by the fae magic in similar ways, the dwarves have avoided trade and interaction with them for decades. One of the most interesting secondary characters hints at a unique dwarven culture.
The novel’s plot relies on the war between the fey and the human, and how the fey operate – by killing and then riding a human body as a host. Their magic affects survivors by amplifying certain emotions or needs, and transmitting those feelings to others around them. Years ago, the heroine, Jane, was trying to save her brother from becoming a fey puppet when she got hit by fey shrapnel. The shrapnel left her with ugly scars on her face and the need to wear “ironskin,” or an iron mask that muted the fey’s magical effects on the people around her. She has spent the intervening time between her injury and the events of this book depressed, angry, withdrawn, and struggling to maintain employment in the face of stigma and prejudice. For the world around her has been seduced by beauty, which is all that matters in the higher echelon of society.
As with the Glamourist Histories series, I found this book to be so closely connected to the Jane Eyre story that it distracted me. The names are all too similar (for example, “Jane” and “Rochart”), and the plot clearly based on the British classic. The only novelties are the additional species (fey and dwarves) and the magic. I haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, which probably explains why I liked this book slightly more than I liked Shades of Milk and Honey.
The romance, obviously inevitable, lacked depth – Jane arrives at Rochart’s manor almost immediately smitten with its owner. Rochart similarly indicates his own attachment early on, when he mentions the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale as he hands Jane into a carriage for a visit home with her sister. He then tells her he won’t leave it up to her, he’ll send the carriage back for her at the end of her vacation, to make sure she returns to him. Later on, hidden agendas and deeper motives are revealed, which should change the lay of the romantic land, but don’t seem to. In other relationships, the same insta-affection occurs. Even right up to the end, Jane’s affection for and attachment to the child Dorie never really made sense to me.
Jane, a likeable enough character, occasionally (in one case, spectacularly) decided on courses of action that made me want to shake her. In the spectacularly annoying incident, the plot actually hinges on her decision. Had she made a different (the more sensible, even character-fitting) decision, the plot would have sagged, to be sure – but as it stands, it felt forced, out of character, and idiotic. While this novel should have been about self-acceptance and overcoming tragedy, I felt that it fell short, and that Jane’s journey from wounded and self-conscious girl to confident, self-loving woman no matter her scars, was derailed and made less believable than it could have been. When she finally does accept who she is, it doesn’t have the same impact as it would have had it come earlier. My conclusion about the romance and relationships applies to the whole book, really – it lacked depth, for me.
Note for the squeamish – there are some gory and gross parts in here.
While this is an enjoyable story, it didn’t really meet my expectations, and I find myself willing to pass over the next in the series.
If you are into close retellings of classic literature, you may enjoy the Glamourist Histories, a series based on the works of Jane Austen. Start with Shades of Milk and Honey:
For readers with a taste for more serious, sometimes spooky, or more alien fey/fae than those found in Neverland, there are many books to try – the selection below is only a fraction of what’s available. Some take place in our time (Darkfever, Carousel Tides, Enchanted No More), while The Fire Lord’s Lover takes place in an alternate Regency England. They’re all quite different, so whatever your tastes, you might find something to enjoy.