Publisher: Tor Books
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Description from Goodreads:
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.
Review (no spoilers):
The following review is based on a copy provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
When I heard about a Jane Eyre retelling with fairies, I was super excited! Jane Eyre is one of my favorite Classics and the fairy element, in my opinion, is already hidden in there. But more about how the two texts relate to each other later.
Jane’s character and the world of Ironskin are closely related. Five years before the beginning of the novel, a war with the fey ended. The fey attacked humans with some sort of bombs, then entered those they killed to gain bodies and be able to fight. This means that people had to kill what looked like their friends or family members to eliminate the fey. In that war, Jane lost her younger brother and her cheek was injured, scarred, cursed. Her curse is rage, meaning that unless she wears an iron mask over half of her face, the curse will leak out and influence the behavior of those around her. The Ironskin, as people like Jane are called, are half outcast from society – it fears them, their curse, and the reminder of the war’s price.
I liked Jane, she has a tough life but rarely complains about it and is a very pragmatic person. However, because of her curse, she is often bitter or angry – an anger she shares with the heroine of the original novel. Overall, she was resolute, though there were times when I didn’t understand her decisions.
All Jane has left at the beginning of the book is her sister Helen, who is her complete opposite: cheery, frivolous, wanting to secure her living by finding a husband rather than by working to be independent. When she manages to snag a rich fiancé, Jane moves out of their London flat to work at the country manor of Mr Rochart to teach Dorie, his cursed child. Jane expects a girl with Ironskin but finds one with fey gifts who never uses her hands, moving things by telekinesis instead. Jane resolves to stay despite her initial shock and try to teach Dorie to behave in a more human way. What follows is a match of stubbornness and a part of the novel that dragged a bit for me and felt quite tedious – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it means that Tina Connolly manages to convey Jane’s own feelings of frustration to the reader. Still, I wanted to shake and smack Dorie at times.
About halfway in things pick up speed as Jane begins to figure out her employer’s secrets and begins to feel an attraction and closeness to him. She also starts to question her curse, its workings and origin, and whether the iron mask really benefits her or not. How much of what she’s believed for the past five years is true? What exactly is the relation between humans and the fey? Who is to blame for the war, and is it really over? And what is Mr Rochart doing in the woods, a place no rational being would enter out of fear of the fey? What is his business with the beautiful women exiting his studio?
I was fascinated but at first also confused by the world of Ironskin. I expected a Victorian setting like in the original, but from what I gathered it resembles the 1920s more. The rendering of a country in the aftermath of a war and what that means for a society as it tries to scramble together a new way of living without the amenities of fey technology was very realistic. Also, suddenly it is revealed that there are also dragons and dwarves, species I hope to hear more about in the sequel. Generally, the reader is left to put the puzzle pieces together on his/her own, which wasn’t always easy. It took me a while to get into the novel because it wasn’t clear where the plot was going, but once I did I could hardly put it down to get my much needed sleep! There’s lots of action quite late in the novel after a long build-up of hints and mysteries, but then the events unraveled with twists I never saw coming!
Finally, a note on intertextuality. The way the two books relate is complex. Names were changed (sometimes it made sense to me, sometimes I thought it was unnecessary), some characters from the original novel had their traits split up and transferred to several minor characters in Ironskin. One of those was Grace Poole, whose name equivalent would be Poule the dwarf butler, a character I really loved but whose temperament and function is very different from her namesake’s. There’s no madwoman in the attic in this retelling, which changes Jane and Edward’s relationship quite a lot. To be honest, their dynamic was just not as captivating as the one in the original (I’m biased there though, as that relationship is pretty much my ideal). I thought both were interesting characters but I just didn’t feel as invested in their budding relationship as I had hoped to. All in all, having read Charlotte Brontë’s novel will enhance your reading but also hinder it through prejudices; you can read, understand, and enjoy the novel just as well if you haven’t read the original.
Overall, though I didn’t absolutely love the novel I really liked it a lot. The writing was solid with some really great bits and I liked the description of the fey as truly terrifying and Other, not of this world. I also liked the interactions of Jane and Poule a lot and the way Jane’s character develops over the course of the book. I was impressed with the way the author wove her research on post-WWI England into the book and adapted it to her own setting. Whether you ultimately like it or not, Ironskin has a way of lingering on the mind between reading session as well as after finishing it. I’d recommend it to people who would like to read a different take on fey, are interested in retellings of Classics, or enjoy historical novels. However, if you lose patience quickly if a book is slow at the beginning, this is maybe not for you.
Have you read Ironskin? What did you think? Does this sound like something that could interest you, and what's your take on retellings/refigurings of Classics in general? Comments and review feedback make me happy :)