Jane Eliot wears an iron mask.
It’s the only way to contain the fey curse that scars her cheek. The Great War is five years gone, but its scattered victims remain—the ironskin.
When a carefully worded listing appears for a governess to assist with a “delicate situation”—a child born during the Great War—Jane is certain the child is fey-cursed, and that she can help.
Teaching the unruly Dorie to suppress her curse is hard enough; she certainly didn’t expect to fall for the girl’s father, the enigmatic artist Edward Rochart. But her blossoming crush is stifled by her own scars, and by his parade of women. Ugly women, who enter his closed studio…and come out as beautiful as the fey.
Jane knows Rochart cannot love her, just as she knows that she must wear iron for the rest of her life. But what if neither of these things is true? Step by step Jane unlocks the secrets of her new life—and discovers just how far she will go to become whole again.
**A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.**
In case you didn’t already know this, I’m a huge Bronte fan. I love those brilliant writing sisters and their gothic genius. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of my favorites. I love the proud and feisty Jane and the dark and brooding Rochester. So when I read that IRONSKIN by Tina Connolly was a fey-centered retelling of this brilliant classic, I was sold. SOLD. And while I don’t think it shines quite as brightly as its predecessor, I do believe Ironskin is a solid book with a good introduction to a fascinating new world and an intriguing heroine.
The best thing about Ironskin, by far, is the world Connolly creates in it. It takes place before the industrial revolution in England, five years after the Great Fey War. Humans obviously know the fey exist and, before the war, traded regularly with them for the powerful fey created energy supplies. At some point relationships between the two species went sour, leading to a war that seemed unwinnable for humans. But, all of a sudden, the fey disappeared, never to be seen again. All that’s left are the sad reminders of their power – the rationed blue packs that provide electricity and power to run machinery and the fey cursed outcasts that were injured in the war. These cursed humans carry the scars of battle – injured limbs, burned faces, etc — and they must wear ironskin to contain their individual curses so that they don’t effect those around them. Jane Eliot, the heroine of this gothic tale, is one of the unfortunate fey cursed. She wears ironskin that covers half her burned face. Not only does it cover the scars but it contains the rage she’s been cursed with bearing and fighting to control.
The fey are feared. They dominate the forests, and though they have not been seen in five years, every human knows not tempt fate and to avoid the forests. But why did the fey disappear? How did trading for an easy power supply impact human innovation?
I love the originality of this premise. The human-fey relationship is wonderfully drawn and the fey themselves are pretty frightening. You don’t see or meet a fey until the last half of the book, but their looming presence haunts both you and the characters throughout the entire story. I also thought the idea of the trade relationship between the two species was interesting. Humans benefitted from fey technology but when it was taken away, how did it impact progress and innovation? And what exactly is the source of that power? Let me tell you, the answer is chilling. The mystery of why the fey disappeared is also a question that nags at the reader throughout, making the reader just as anxious and fearful as the characters as to whether or not the fey will reappear and attack.
The heroine of this tale is also fascinating. Jane is cursed, on the outskirts, burdened to carry the scars of war for the rest of her life. She is filled with guilt, fear, and anger but she is also strong, independent and resourceful. Much like Jane Eyre, Jane Eliot accepts a governess position at the secluded home of the mysterious artist, Edward Rochart. She is charged with taking care of Dorie, Rochart’s daughter, who is also fey cursed. Dorie has the ability to move things without touching them. Jane must teach the girl how to be more human and feels an affinity with her since Jane herself had to learn how to control and contain her own fey curse. Through her time with the Rocharts, Jane grows from self-loathing to empowerment over the course of the story. She will no longer let the scar or the curse define her. There are fantastic moments of longing and sadness that are truly moving and open the reader to Jane’s bruised psyche so that her empowerment by the end of the book is that much sweeter.
The central mystery in Ironskin is also very good. What does Rochart really do? Who was Dorie’s mother? These questions also nag at the reader throughout the book and while I have to admit I suspected the answer to Rochart’s mystery fairly quickly, the depth of it, the perversion of it, and the delicious macabre quality of it were still pretty satisfying.
My biggest problem with Ironskin really lies in the relationship between Jane and Rochart. Perhaps it’s unfair to continuously compare the book to Jane Eyre but if you’re going to market the book this way, I feel it’s valid to point out the differences. For me, Jane Eyre oozed passion between Jane and Rochester, you felt devastated for Jane when big revelations were made, and while Rochester’s actions were unpardonable, you felt for him somewhat as well. For me, in Ironskin, I felt pretty much zero chemistry between Jane and Rochart. I was devastated for Jane because I was invested in her as a character. Rochart? He was held at arms length too much for me. He was all mystery and no passion, no strong feeling. I felt very little for him as a character and because of that couldn’t quite buy what was a central element to the story — the budding romance between the two, the strong connection between two souls so that after something as devastating as what happens to them, it’s understandable that Jane would still be with him. I don’t buy it and this bothered me. I wanted to feel something for two lost souls who have been put through the ringer. Instead, at the end, I just felt like Jane needed to keep calm and carry on.
I also found it interesting that the ending sets up a sequel. Ironskin felt very standalone to me and I’m super curious to see where Connolly plans on taking us in book two. One of the pleasures of this book was its setting – the gothic manor made of fey architecture that has seen better days, isolated on the moors, surrounded by dark forests, realm of the fey…The ending was such that I feel Connolly will have to take book two out of this setting and I wonder if some of that gothic atmosphere that was so successfully created in Ironskin, will be lost in book two.
All in all, Ironskin is a well-written, solid fey-gothic tale. Though the romance was a bit drab, the original world-building, macabre mystery, gothic atmosphere, and strong heroine make it worth the read.