Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Genre: Fantasy Steampunk
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.
I like Jane Eyre, but since it’s the only one of Charlotte Brontë’s books I do like (I’m more of an Emily woman), that’s not saying a lot. The retellings are usually more interesting to me and I thought the concept of a fantasy/steampunk version sounded good. In general, it was, and I enjoyed it for Jane’s story. Just don’t go into it looking for romance and don’t expect a lot of specific world-building because it’s sorely lacking.
Jane Eliot has a long history of being let go from governess positions, even though she’s had glowing recommendations. The blame rests directly on the side of her face: Jane was injured in the war with the fey and now wears a partial ironskin to cover the area so her curse (rage) doesn’t leak through. As soon as a healthy, unmarked relative came back from the war, Jane found herself out of a job, which brings her to Edward Rochart’s doorstep now. His daughter is in need of an unusual governess and she fits the bill.
To understand Dorie, Rochart and Jane at all, I’ll have to explain the fey and their attacks but the thing is, I can’t do that very well because Connolly didn’t do it very well. What I have: the Fey Queen wanted to take over so she launched a war against the humans. Their weapons are explosive balls and…stuff. If you get killed, they can come into your body and turn you into a host, which I guess means they’re incorporeal. If your body holds anything with fey magic in it, the fey have a way into you and you carry some kind of curse, although I have no idea who determines what it is. The fey can’t pass through iron, so it’s used to fortify houses, as weapons and as coverings for whatever body parts of those unfortunate enough to be hit by fey magic and live. And that’s all I’ve got, really.
Dorie is indeed special. She has some kind of fey curse, but neither Rochart nor Jane can figure out what it is or where it’s coming from. She can move things without her hands and create dancing blue lights, exactly like the fey. She’s incorrigible, uncontrollable and refuses to act with any semblance of normality. It’s Jane’s job to manage this child and actually teach her to quit using her magic. That’s the first one-third plus of the story. Jane fights with Dorie. Dorie throws a tantrum. Jane gets frustrated, feels despondent over her lack of progress but vows to continue. More fights and more tantrums. Occasionally they’re broken up with brief glances of Rochart wandering in from the woods and making some affectionate remark to Jane.
It’s all very clear that Rochart is Up To No Good in the house. The servants have a fit when Jane accidentally heads towards a staircase to his private artist rooms. He’s secretive, barely ever around and vanishes without a word for long periods of time, often into the woods where there may still be dangerous fey activity. He surrounds himself with gorgeous women, acting like it pains him one moment, like he’s born to it the next. Then there are the masks – rows of grotesque masks of women’s faces.
If I ignored certain elements of the story, Ironskin had a nice gothic appeal to me. Jane was the perfect heroine for it: starting out a little mild and hiding from the world, evolving into a woman who knows her worth, trusts her true friends and is ready to take control of her life. She’s wonderful with Dorie, who’s an awful little monster for most of the story. I liked the relationships Jane made with people outside the Rochart family the best: Niklas the blacksmith who created her ironskin; Poule the dwarvven and her more frivolous, society-conscious sister Helen.
I didn’t expect a big sweeping love affair but I thought there would be some sort of chemistry or feeling of something developing between Jane and Rochart. It just didn’t happen. They rarely spent any time together and when he did, he had a kind of creepy way of flirting and I imagine looking ardently at her. This had less of a “love story” feel than a “whatever, we’re not getting any younger,” feel.
My Summary: I don’t think it’s possible to read this and not think of Jane Eyre, but the more you’ll be able to not pay too close attention to, the more enjoyment you may get out of this. The world-building is pretty shaky if you actually care about the fey backstory and if you want a dose of romance in a gothic-fantasy-steampunk-post apocalyptic story, you won’t get it. I still liked Jane’s story once I picked through the rest of it; she’s a compelling character and I loved the way her mind worked. If only the rest of the story had caught up.