So the next time I yet again try to pick up and enjoy a YA book, someone please teleport into my local library, shake me by the shoulders, give me Paddington Bear’s Hard Stare, and teleport away again.
I am not a happy reader of YA.
And yet! Every time! The gorgeous book covers! The delectable story concepts! The ease with which the writing flows!
It can’t be that bad, I think. YA fantasy is just MG fantasy aimed at an older age group.
Right. Except it’s really not. It’s an entirely different thing, and if you compare one to the other, you’re just going to get a massive headache and possibly a Master’s degree level thesis.
Where am I going with this?
I’m about to review Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Raven. It’s about to be a really solid grumpy little rant (it’s fun when we do those. Really). But it’s unfair for me to eloquently trash this book for failing to meet my expectations when I, the noble reader, am in fact set up to dislike YA as a genre, apparently down to my core.
Some people spend their whole lives aspiring to be snobs. Some of us just start life out that way.
Book: The Iron Raven by Julie Kagawa
Series: The Iron Fey: Evenfall, No. 1.
Genre: YA Fantasy (modern Fae/Robin Goodfellow retelling)
Content for the Sensitive Reader:
Enough profanity to push the PG-13 film rating, some dramatic sequences, magic magic magic, blood/battle scenes (none particularly graphic), assassins, attempted seduction (mild/moderate), suggested seduction of multiple men and women by one character, kissing, gooey shadow monsters, antisemitic imagery/caricature and other racial insensitivity.
WARNING: this rantish review will contain spoilers for The Iron Raven! Read at your own risk!
Okay. Deep breath. Set the stage.
It’s about the middle of November. I’m in the tiny local library downtown, browsing the half-size stack that is the YA book section. It’s technically the first in-person visit to a public library since pre-Plague days, so I’m understandably very happy.
And I pick up The Iron Raven. Because it’s yellow. It has ravens on it. And it promised me Robin Goodfellow an entire book all to himself are you joking it’s coming home with me.
There was a little voice in the back of my head chiding me that I wasn’t going to like the YA version. This was silenced by corvid brain chanting Puck, Puck, Puck, Puck over and over again.
Another little thing I should mention.
There are a few characters that I am–particular about.
- Peter Pan
- Robin Hood
- and now, apparently, Robin Goodfellow (Puck)
If there’s a reinterpretation, I’m already there with my grabby hands outstretched. If I haven’t read/watched it, then I know about it. Retellings are great.
But if you reinterpret a story so it loses all the core essence of what we loved about it in the first place…
I’m getting ahead of myself. The Iron Raven. Let’s talk about it.
It started out…really well, actually.
I mean, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a magical Fae market under the shadow of a Ferris wheel in an abandoned fairground, right?
Of course right.
And giving us our tour is Puck, introducing all the things he can use just to prank everyone.
(This is, I should note, after the prologue in which we meet Young Puck and a lot of dead forest creatures…it’s established things are Going to Happen in this book and we’re not shying away from the violent side of Faerie nature. Right? Well…)
Thing is, we don’t stay in the Goblin Market very long. Why am I mentioning it?
Because it’s probably my favorite location in the book.
I have a weakness for magic abandoned circus places. It’s specific. I’m aware.
Let’s talk about the characters, shall we?
Bear in mind, I’ve never read a Kagawa book before. I don’t know who any of these non-famous, non-mythic characters are or how they tie into things.
Lucky for us, Kagawa has no problem repeating herself.
Kind of a lot.
So in no particular order:
- Puck (I lied. Of course he comes first. He’s the reason I’m here). It’s Robin Goodfellow! From A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Puck of Pook’s Hill! Everyone’s imagination who has ever crossed paths with him once because he is the unforgettable prankster! In this version, he’s a pointy-eared flirty boy in a green hoodie who swears too much and tells terrible puns that are never funny!
- Keirran–emo kind of not vampire Fae Elf Prince Boy who appears to deliver ominous message, take part in one Epic Battle, and promptly disappear for the rest of the book. Shame. I could have liked him.
- Nyx–nighttime assassin, required Fae who Does Not Understand This Reference, and required Hot Girl presence in every YA book ever. You know, the one that cannot exist in “closely fitted leather armor” without having some idiot boy slobber all over her–erm–be part of the main romantic arc. Yes, it’s Puck. Yes, I’m grumpy about it. In her favor, she does have a unique appearance to give the rest of the cast a little variety. Shiny silver hair and yellow eyes are cool.
- Ash–original emo Elf boy. Pretty sure Puck actually says this at some point in the book. Essentially exists to be Puck’s foil/best friend/worst enemy and nothing else. No character arc.
- Meghan Chase–former mortal girl/chosen one and now ruler of the Iron Fae. Good for her. Likes falling into her husband’s arms. Can also shoot lightning out of her hands.
- Coaleater–part metal (is he technically a cyborg? we’ll never know) Iron Fae horse person. Honestly pretty cool, but super focused on tradition and honor. Kind of just there to round out the cast, move the plot forward (like the literal sentient machine of Deus ex machina) and chill in the background until someone needs to dramatically battle vault off his back.
- The Big Bad monster. No, I am not joking. That’s really the name Puck gives it in the book. Essentially your standard ink blob monster (think Rorschach plus the globby creatures that pop up in multiple Studio Ghibli films and add a few extra tentacles and antlers). Makes you hate life. And probably possesses you so you kill all your friends.
(cue bookmarkedone massaging temples because what do I do with this?)
Look, I was willing to give Modern Puck a chance. There’s not a lot of detail about him in the Midsummer version, which means there’s a lot of room for fanfiction authors (let’s not pretend–that’s what this is) to do their stuff. Green hoodie? Why not? He’s not a suit-and-tie kind of guy. Mischief? Absolutely. Swears a lot? Personally don’t care for it, but it’s definitely a plausible interpretation. Falls deeply and madly in love with a serious assassin after actually falling in love with a mortal girl some years prior?
That’s…not the Puck I know.
Especially when the Lady in Question is a very no-nonsense killer type.
Puck. What even.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Nyx, because I really need to talk about Nyx.
Bear in mind, I like her. I don’t really understand pairing Puck with her, but I like her.
Here’s the plot point I take issue with. Nyx is a type of Fae that steals glamour–essentially Fae life force–from other creatures constantly to fend off fading into oblivion. This can happen intentionally, all at once, or unintentionally, uncontrollably, all the time. With me so far?
Okay. Next you need to know that absorbing glamor can change the person who absorbs it. Absorb the energy of the “Big Bad?” You’ve got a snarling, very angry Ent/Goodfellow/Fae/etc. Simple, right?
Here’s my point. Nyx is with Puck all the time. Sometimes quite literally in his shadow. At the beginning of the book, she’s cold and distant. She’s an assassin and a bodyguard. Her one job is to keep her king alive. The regular suffer-in-silence emo YA type.
By the end of the book? She’s cracking jokes with Puck. Specifically, his jokes.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
Puck isn’t falling in love with Nyx. He’s falling in love with the part of himself that Nyx has siphoned from him–especially after he gave her a lucky token he’d been carrying around since the beginning of the book.
Do we address this fact that Nyx is not going through a character arc so much as losing her identity and becoming a second Puck or the fact that this may or may not be intentional or that she one day may drain Puck’s extensive glamour/life essence dry?
No. They’re in love. That’s it.
Moving on from clearly non-canon material, let’s talk about the plot!
It…reads like a video game.
Now if you like that, it could be great. Start at point A, talk to a lot of NPCs, end at point Z after a lot of Epic Battles and hooray! You win! End book!
For me…I kept wanting to skip ahead, to where things actually got good, but there was no “skip ahead…” and this was the entire book.
- Puck gets into Squabble leaving Goblin Market
- Puck gains new Companion
- Puck goes on quest to deliver information about Squabble to Queen
- (Puck goes on Side Quest/character bonding adventure to prevent Companion from instantly dying in Iron Realm)
- Puck delivers information
- Puck joins Queen on original quest started by Squabble
- (cue much traveling, several epic battles that really all feel the same except the very last one where something finally clicks for Puck that has clicked for the reader a long time ago, and that’s a wrap. Let’s not forget to thank our secondary locations, Steampunk Fae Realm, Ominous Forest, Ominous Forest II, Return to Ominous Forest I, Boggy Swamp, and Castle We Stole from Beauty and the Beast)
The battles are equally, if not more video-game-esque than the plot. It’s the classic MMORPG–each character has a different skillset (in this case the glamour powers of Summer, Winter, Iron, and whatever Nyx has going on), powering up time, and spells that require recharging (if you think I’m joking, near the end, Ash literally builds his wife ice parkour steps so she can dramatically hop up them to be at Good Stabbing Height). More importantly, characters can die, but it’s not likely, and even when the possibility is incredibly great…none of the battles really mean anything.
Look, I read a lot of SF/F stories every year, particularly from new and emerging authors, and the question is, if you make death less possible, if you make characters more powerful or completely unkillable, you’ve got to raise the stakes in another way. Even if you can’t die, you can still hurt. Even if you don’t feel physical pain, everyone’s got something they want to protect.
How about the epic battles in J. A. Becker’s “For the Federation,” in Writers of the Future Vol. 38, hmm? Difficult to kill just means higher stakes, even more dramatic fight sequences as time slips away.
Or “War Hero” by Brian Trent (WOTF Vol. 29), where dying means coming back to life to be tortured again and again and again in an endless loop of gruesome pain?
Yeah, Kagawa doesn’t do any of that. She could. She sets it up by telling us once the Fae die, that’s it. It’s over. Complete cessation of existence. No souls to pass on to some afterlife.
But she doesn’t delve into it. Maybe it’s because Puck is never really serious about anything, but even from the first battle, it feels–methodical? Ritualistic? Just going through the motions? Just another Monday at the office?
Danger has long since ceased to hold any spice for these ageless characters, and, accordingly, there is no heart-pounding on the account of the reader, either, even when doing a backflip over an antlered and tentacled hateful shadow-monster should, under normal conditions, be pretty thrilling.
Am I being a little unfair?
Maybe. It’s like I said. I’m not a fan of heavy profanity when I read, and that was pretty hard for me to get past. I tried. I tried to like this new, watered-down, friendlier, “not violent to mortals,” “ask the girl if she actually wants to kiss you now,” version of Puck.
But what dropped it from a three-star to a two-star review?
Early on in their adventures, Puck and Nyx come across an encampment of goblins. There’s a struggle, Nyx kills a few, and lets the last one go when he begs for his life in a silly accent. Puck proceeds to casually call their entire race the cockroaches of that dimension, and Nyx agrees. Later, they pass by another goblin camp (if memory serves me properly), and Puck, under emotional strain, considers how fun it would be to rush in and kill all of them.
Okay! Let’s look at the facts here, please!
- These are not beetles, flies, gnats, rats, mosquitoes, or any other type of pest that could cause disease, crop damage, or any other type of major problem.
- The goblins here are sentient creatures. Evidenced by their capability to speak coherently to Nyx.
- Robin Goodfellow is talking about a massacre of sentient creatures to take the edge of tension off his day–killing for fun.
Okay! It’s Puck! He’s not a nice guy in all the stories! Fae kill mortals sometimes. What’s the difference between that and killing a few goblins?
Well, first of all, there’s a world of difference between playing a malicious prank on a human because you don’t understand how mortality works (the classic function of Puck and most Fae), accidentally killing said mortal, versus intentionally going out to exterminate an entire race of creatures.
Second of all, they’re goblins.
This is a picky topic, and I’ve thought more than a little bit about how to tackle it. If you’ve spent any time at all in the fantasy writing world, you’re probably aware of the huge debate of J. K. Rowling’s goblins in Harry Potter and how they pass on unkind stereotypes and caricatures of the Jewish people. Maybe it’s intentional, maybe it was simply passing down cultural stories without looking more closely at what they might mean. Of course I saw it after the issue was carefully pointed out to me, but I wasn’t really sure how I personally felt about it. It read more like an extremely unfortunate accident than something malicious (although that could be just because I generally like fictional goblins).
But to introduce your goblins not as an independent group in a fantasy world with their own culture, motivations, and beauty, but as something to be carelessly stamped out? To refer to them as cockroaches?
That, to me, feels way, way more alarming.
Kagawa’s protagonist essentially says, “I’m bored. How about a genocide of a sentient people group that traditionally has been used as a stand-in for a real-life group that is currently undergoing serious hate?”
(cue bookmarkeone screaming because not okay, not okay, not okay why is no one talking about this?)
Oh, but never fear! There’s actually more!
Remember I mentioned Coaleater in the character list? Cool dude? Iron Fae? Partially metal? Could probably stand up to just about anybody without flinching?
If I read this correctly, he’s also Kagawa’s POC representation. Dreadlocks, skin tone, etc. Cool, right? Representation for the yay!
Maybe I wouldn’t have thought about this so much if I hadn’t gone on full alarm mode with the goblin genocide. But Coaleater also has a nonhuman form. He can shapeshift into a horse.
Normally, wouldn’t think twice about that. Shapeshifting, great. Horse is a noble creature, makes sense that someone with a serious sense of honor and nobility would take that shape. No problems, right?
But if you exclude the greenish and dark blue skin tones (since they don’t have an obvious parallel in our world), Coaleater is, as far as I understand, the only POC character.
And he makes a transformation into a beast. An animal, traditionally used as a beast of burden, that other characters proceed to sit and ride on in the rest of the novel.
That’s…really super not comfy for me to think about in light of historical slurs and stereotypes.
To see this from a mature author (with a minority heritage, no less!) and a major publisher, published only last year–frankly, I’m a little shocked.
I want to believe this is an accident. It probably is. Sloppy writing. That’s all. On the part of an author and her entire editing and development team. Sure. Stranger things have happened, right?
But it’s still…not good.
Just once, I’d like to have unproblematic goblin fiction. No caricature, no stereotype, no real-world parallel. Just funky little goblin dudes with their shiny pebbles and mushrooms and mismatched socks.
Even if I have to write it myself.
So that’s the Iron Raven.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading the whole rant. Some other book reviews are in the works (even some gushy fangirling ones! I do actually like reading books), so stay tuned!
Until next time, happy reading.