Book Review: Heart of Iron

Book: Heart of Iron by Erkaterina Sedia

Genre: Steampunk/Alternate History/Fantasy

Content for the Sensitive Reader: mild language, discussions of religion and historical attitudes toward race and gender, implied romantic affair, distantly depicted death of several side characters. Very acceptable for YA and most middle-grade audiences.

BookmarkedOne Rating: 4/10

SPOILERS CLEARLY MARKED, read at your own discretion.

So it was probably a mistake on my part to read this so soon after Amy McAuley’s Violins of Autumn. The similarities, aside from some genre differences, kept cropping up.

I can’t say that was particularly refreshing. And yes, noticing them probably made me less receptive and more the critical, curmudgeonly little bookwurm we all know I really am. Which leads me to this:

Heart of Iron does not read like a finished novel. It has more in common with a very-well polished first draft of a story casually written in a young woman’s free afternoons and sent off to the publisher as such, who then rushed it into printing without further editing.

Ouch.

Seriously though, I was going to be mumbling and grumbling to myself for a while if I didn’t get that out.

Why am I saying something so cruel? Mmm…

  • The Pacing: Be aware, this story really doesn’t start until about page 53. Up until that point, it’s a leisurely tour of backstory. The pace doesn’t pick up until about page 90.
  • The Characters: Truth be told, Sasha does have a character arc! She goes from a mousy, passive girl hiding in a Russian manor to a determined young woman pursuing higher education. But aside from that? I realize the point of this style of book is to make a character innocent and average enough most readers can put themselves in her shoes. But Sasha was ordinary to the point of irritating me. She didn’t do anything for herself that wasn’t suggested by someone else first. And what she does do, repeatedly? Abandons her friends, abandons her friends, abandons her friends. Which leads me to another question. Why are we even focalized through Sasha? Jack is by far the more interesting character. Even Chiang Tse could have an interesting perspective…but I suspect the answer is because this is a book written by a woman author for other young women. And therefore the protagonist must be female. Fine. Not my book, so it’s not my choice. As for the rest of the characters, their motivations are hazy and voices indistinct, making it difficult to tell them apart (ouch. Sorry).
  • The Writing Style: Too much about foliage and ice…oy, if I’d counted every time we arbitrarily mentioned the snow of St. Petersburg or the ice coating the branches of the trees. And Sedia also tries to describe Chinese calligraphy, architecture, and martial arts as the character has never seen them before. Great idea, but feels awkward and sluggish for the reader who already knows.
  • The Plot: Is there one? It seems like there is. But it changes every few chapters until characters who suggested the next plot point have to be reminded of their suggestion, as if it never happened. It feels more like a travelogue than a political espionage novel, with Sasha and her friends traversing the countryside and commenting on the appearance of the ice.
  • The Love Triangle: I’m not going to lie, this is a pet peeve and I hate love triangles. Aside from that! This one lacks tension. Both gentlemen are clearly still affectionate of Sasha at the end of the novel and she seems perfectly content to leave things that way.
  • The Themes: I really still am not sure what sort of book Sedia intended this to be. Alternate history has so much potential for showing how things might have turned out differently. From the first half of the book, it appeared to be a feminist and anti-racist critique on attitudes of the 19th century. Certainly a viable topic, but the discrimination Sasha faces at the university is dry and ordinary enough to likely bore even the most passionate of wild feminists. When the plot picks up speed in the second half of the book, these threads almost entirely disappear, replaced by a discussion of Eastern Orthodox, Nordic, and various hybridized religions from Asia in a degree of nonchalance and irresolution that satisfies no one. You know by now careless treatment of religion in books gets under my skin. Hearing Sasha passively define her beliefs as “only what she was taught” and alternately pigheadedly oppose and take mild interest in other religions irritated me to no end. There are tropes to religions in novels, and this hit quite a few. Still, the discussion of religion seems to just be a fleeting fancy in the story. Leaving me wondering–if it’s not religion or feminism that we’re discussing here, under the veil of the plot, what is it? I still don’t know. The ending makes “change” or “technology” or “coming of age” all possibilities, but none of them stands out definitively.
  • The nitty-gritty technical details: There are a few of these, so I’ll just pick my favorite: Sasha manages to masquerade as a man, while drunk, while injured and mostly unconscious, through a doctor’s examination, and among an entire trainload of soldiers. Right…sure she does. Sedia admits things look a little fishy there and suggest some of them “see through her disguise.” That’s not satisfactory because we never have a scene where it’s addressed. And I get it! Writing technical details into situations is super hard! But it is also the technical, minute, beautiful, suspenseful details that make a book worth reading. And it is why we need authors and everyone does not tell all the stories they want themselves.
  • The Suspense: Quite frankly, there is none. No, really. It’s political espionage, cloak-and-dagger, arson, thievery, and Chinese martial arts against the life-threatening background of a Siberian winter–and it’s dull. Not once was I concerned for Sasha’s safety in the entire 311 pages of the novel. Everything falls into her lap exactly when she needs it to. Sure, a few things go wrong, but they don’t faze her in the least. And for a high-stakes political challenge like the one in the book, let’s have a few things go wrong! Let’s make our protagonists miserable for a little while, make the challenge an actual challenge so we care about who lives and what happens!
  • The Spying: Honestly, they should have been dead so many times…if anyone can hear you across the aisle when you’re having a conversation in a train, is that really the best time to have suspicious conversations? If they can see you, (SPOILER) should Jack really be almost on top of Sasha so he can stare doey-eyed at her face? While she is dressed as a man? I get it, Sasha’s never been a spy. But Jack? He should know better, yes? Sasha starts keeping a diary on the trip. Not as her cover identity. As herself, the little Russian noblewoman. Anyone who has ever read any sort of spy book knows she signed her own death warrant doing that, and probably that of every one of her friends she mentioned–but of course, everything works out perfectly.
  • The Explanation: So in a story about Jack the Ripper as a fabulous superhuman creature, we all want to know how it works, right? Well…we get a great deal of backstory, but the actual how…feels a bit lacking. Writing it off as “inborn ability and circumstance,” is a legitimate explanation. It’s just not a particularly satisfying one. With the way Jack’s backstory is interspersed through the story, I kept expecting we would get a final piece of the story. Something was missing. But it never came.
  • The Ease of Everything: This probably irritated me more than the unresponsive characters, writing style, or meandering plot. Every conflict Sasha has is neatly resolved within a matter of pages. Everything falls into her lap. (SPOILER) She willingly shares a room with a wanted criminal with known romantic feelings for her without even considering the possibility of mild embarrassment. Is not even afraid of her criminal friend until she reappears in the story with a boyfriend to finish out the love triangle. I thought all of this frankly ridiculous (hussars sweep in and rescue her at a dire moment, Chinese martial artists magically appear when they have attackers). And then a quote on page 279, “This is very naive of you. Do you think he is helping you because you’re serving the purpose he finds agreeable, or because you’re so precious that everyone who runs into you just has to help you?” Ha. The author is aware, at least to some degree. Why not show it more in the narrative itself? Make things a little more cutthroat, if that’s how they really are?
  • Tying up loose ends:(SPOILER) There is one scene in particular where Sasha is nearly killed by arson. And Sedia builds it up beautifully, really! She describes how it’s a bad idea to go to this place, then how everything looks fresh and new, as if it had just been built, the lazy, inattentive mood Sasha is in so she doesn’t notice important things, and then the smell of smoke. Probably the best-written section of the book! But after her (inevitable) escape, we never learn who set the fire. Yes, probably it was the same pursuers from the beginning of the book. But we don’t know. And frankly, the least plausible option is often the most interesting one and what authors choose to write about. So it could have been the English. It could have been the train conductor. It could have been someone entirely unrelated. It could have been (my personal favorite) Jack. Yet we’ll never know.
  • The Typos: present too often to ignore…but that’s the fault of copyeditor and publisher as well as the author.
  • Cultural Notes: I already mentioned the awkward descriptions of calligraphy and martial arts. By this point–and I am aware this is super petty, so feel free to be annoyed with me because this time I deserve it–when Sasha describes Buryat tea “with lard” I was just done. I had an acquaintance from Kazakhstan once who giggled and admitted she drank her tea with a spoonful of butter or cream, knowing it wasn’t something we did in the States. Frankly never called it “lard.” And after Sedia’s harsh description before Sasha ever even tastes the drink…well, let’s say I’m about ready to get a spoonful of butter and dunk it into tea myself, just to prove it’s not as gross as she claims.
  • The Ending: (SPOILER!): After everything is over, all the main characters just go back to university classes in St. Petersburg like nothing happened. No. Sorry, just no. The entire point of this story is so things end differently. The entire point of alternate history. We should not end with virtually the same situation as we had on page 92.

I’m probably going to regret this review for a while. I cringe a little at tearing a book down too violently. The only reason I can think that makes shredding a book to pieces in this way fair is that ignoring it is hardly the kinder option.

So a few other honest words before the end:

  • I did read the whole thing.
  • I was super excited to read it when I bought it at the Epic Library Sale (Steampunk! China! Russia! Evil Florence Nightingale!).
  • It has really great concepts.

So where is all this venom coming from?

Am I irritated that she wasted my time? That she didn’t deliver the same book she promised on the back cover?

No. I think the real answer is that I’m disappointed. The idea of a story about Spring Heeled Jack as a tragic figure, espionage, alternate history, it’s all fantastic. But frankly, that’s all it is. An idea. Like Sasha vacillating between her nostalgic past and the strange new future, we seem to be caught between what the book is–

and what a beautiful thing it might have been.


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