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BOOK REVIEW: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Ironskin was the Nebula-nominated premiere novel from Tina Connolly, published by Tor Books in Fall 2012. It was followed by Copperhead in Fall 2013 and Silverblind in Fall 2014.

In Ironskin, the country has run with abundant clean power for hundreds of years by trading with the fey. Ten years ago this long-held alliance turned into open conflict between fey and humans. Five years ago, the open conflict ended when the fey disappeared back into the forests with no explanation.

The fey have no physical forms, and exist as ephemeral blue clouds. They can use their power to make bombs. The fresh corpses made by those bombs are animated by the fey and can only be killed by stabbing the walking corpse with iron. Those who are injured by the bombs become victims of a fey curse that lives in the scar. Different scars have different effects–hunger, anger, violence, others. This curse affects everyone around the cursed individual and can only be held in by covering the scar with iron, though that has the effect of turning the curse double back on its owner. These people are known as ironskin.

Jane Eliot is an ironskin, who has the curse of anger in a facial scar that she hides behind a half-mask. She used to be a teacher, but few want to employ an ironskin, especially someone whose iron is in such a conspicuous part of her body. She must take what work she can get, and that work is to become a governess for Dorie Rochart, a troubled child living in a country estate. From some details of the work advertisement, Jane thinks that Dorie must be an ironskin like herself but when she arrives Jane discovers that Dorie is something completely different, something she’s never heard of–a half-fey. Maybe the only half-fey in existence.

Dorie’s fey connections are hard to miss. Although she’s four years old, she doesn’t know how to use her hands for anything. She doesn’t have to know, because she can manipulate things with her fey powers. She also speaks very little and has no interest in obeying anyone but her usually absent father Edward Rochart. The anti-fey sentiment is strong everywhere in the country with the war still so fresh in memory, so unless Dorie can learn to act like an ordinary human being, she will never be able to do anything but live in solitude. This is what Jane has been hired to do, and she is only the most recent of a long string of failed governesses.

Among her other struggles on the Rochart estate, one of her frustrations is Edward’s frequent absences. When he is present he can be intensely present, but one can never tell when or how long those appearances will be. There’s something decidedly strange about Edward, though something appealing as well.

If Ironskin shows anything, it’s that Tina Connolly is a superb writer. One of the best traits shown here is the tightness of the prose. There is no padding to make the book longer or to infodump, but there’s also never any moment where a reader had less information than they needed to understand what was happening–all the information was given as part of the story before the point it was needed. This is why a solid, full book can fit into just a few hundred pages.

I also love the world building in Ironskin, the take on the ephemeral fey, and the effect that the fey-bargained technology has had on the country that seems to be England (though I’m not sure it ever actually says it’s England)–the Industrial Revolution seems to have never happened because there was no need for it with the presence of an abundant and clean power source. But in the wake of the fey war, the power packs lent by the fey have been depleting and have become a scarce commodity, throwing the country into a new age of innovation decades later than it happened in our world, as inventors scramble to create something to replace fey power. I like when world building takes those kinds of secondary effects into account.

Silverblind was actually the first of the books that I read, on Tina’s advice that it stands well on its own. Although Silverblind does stand completely by itself, there are recurring elements of which I didn’t understand the full import until reading Ironskin and knowing the fates of some of the characters in Silverblind defused some of the major points of tension in Ironskin. Because of that, although you can read Silverblind and be able to understand it perfectly well, I think you’re losing something by reading them out of order–even reading my review of Silverblind might give away more than you want.

About David Steffen (64 Articles)
David Steffen is a writer and editor and software engineer and a voracious consumer of podcast fiction. The first piece of fiction he's edited is now available, "Taste the Whip" by Andy Dudak on Diabolical Plots(http://www.diabolicalplots.com/dp-fiction-1-taste-the-whip-by-andy-dudak/). David is also the co-founder and administrator of the The Submission Grinder(http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/), a tool for writers.
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