Monday, June 27, 2011

The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge

Title: The Iron Thorn
Author: Caitlin Kittredge
Publisher: Random House/Delacorte Press
Release Date: February 22, 2011
Pages: 492 pages (hardback)
How I Got the Book: Bought it.

In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft's epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roan the streets after dark, and for everything that the Proctors deem Heretical, or born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, time is running shorter by the day.

Aoife's family is unique in the worst way. Her mother and older brother, Conrad, both went mad on their sixteenth birthdays. And now, a ward of the state nearing her own sixteenth birthday, Aoife is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.

Her future seems bleak. Until one day she receives a letter that reads simply:

Find the witch's alphabet.
Save yourself.

Aoife knows the letter is from Conrad, but the last time she saw her brother was the day he lost his mind and attacked her before going on the run from the Proctors. Could it be that he is sane somewhere and warning her to get out while she still can--or is the note simply a message from a rambling madman?

To save herself, Aoife must find her brother. And to do that, she must leave Lovecraft and venture into a world of Heretics and air pirates, night creatures and dark family secrets... before the clock winds down, and she too succumbs to the necrovirus.


Aoife (pronounced EE-fa) Grayson is a ward of the state and has been so since her mother was committed. Enrolled in the School of Engines so she can become an engineer, she hopes that the necrovirus that drove her mother and brother to insanity won't strike her down too. Weeks before her sixteenth birthday, a letter arrives from her brother Conrad, who ran away when he turned sixteen, asking for help. Accompanied by her friend Cal and a flirtatious guide named Dean, Aoife sets out for her father's home, the only place she can imagine Conrad going. What she learns will expose her to a truth the Proctors have been keeping from the public and force her to make a terrible choice.

I... Quite frankly, I don't know what to think of this book. My head's pounding from trying to make sense of it, so I don't think that's a good thing.

The characters all had their flaws, and none of them ever tried to be anything but perfect. Aoife isn't exactly a sweetheart to the people around her and Cal... I can't even begin to talk about Cal. I'll leave it at "I don't like him." Aoife's fear of insanity felt real to me, and it had me wondering sometimes if she were already insane and being an unreliable narrator. The strongest point overall was the development of Dean and Aoife's relationship. The way their friendship grew into attraction and took its sweet time rocked, and it made sense when I asked why they liked each other! I wish more couples could trust each other the way these two do.

Sometimes, that characterization gets kind of inconsistent, though instances of this are few. For example, Aoife calls herself clumsy when she's been nothing of the sort throughout all the book before it. Then she'll flip-flop between "I'm not a proper girl, so stop trying to make me be one!" and "I'm a proper girl and I can't like him because that's not what proper girls do!" She gets over this quickly, thank goodness.

This was my first voyage into steampunk and I'm not so sure this was a good place for me to start. No pains are made to explain about aether or dirigibles or anything like that; that's good for previous steampunk readers, but it's confusing for complete newbies like me. Though a lot of the elements are there, the story isn't completely steampunk. I would call it equal parts dystopia, steampunk, and paranormal for the fairies that come in later in the book. Pretty much everything you start with at the beginning of the book has been turned upside-down by the end by progression of the plot and nothing about it--what the right choice is, how to fix what went wrong, figuring out what just happened--is easy.

Sometimes the prose is pretty, sometimes it's not ("My stomach closed like a fist" (p. 2)), but the book itself feels overwritten most of the time. Heavily descriptive and full of metaphors and similes, the scenes get bogged down and slows down the entire book as a result. Description and lovely turns of prose are great, but they stop being great when they come at a cost to the novel as a whole. Multiple descriptions could have been axed altogether and when your character is getting so specific after getting bit by a monster and barely being conscious, you're definitely overwriting it.

But I feel it necessary to warn anyone planning to read this book that there is sexism in it. There are remarks like "You're smart for a girl, but..." (p. 128) and "We won't always be schoolkids, Aoife. What will a husband think of this bookwork habit? (p. 298) thrown around. Women are considered unfit to do certain jobs and go to certain schools, such as an aerodynamics school, just because they're women. Considering that this takes place both in the 1950s and in an alternate universe, some may make an allowance for that despite a dislike of it. On one hand, it would be realistic for the times (though the different universe may offset that). On the other hand, sexism isn't okay period. In the end, I'll just make people aware that it's here in case it's something a reader feels they can't tolerate for any reason in a book.

This isn't the kind of book I would hurry to press on others. If you are absolutely confident that you can take it and you want to read The Iron Thorn, I say go for it. If you have doubts, you might not want to buy it and if you still want to read it, borrow a copy instead. I'm not sure whether or not I'll be staying around for The Nightmare Garden, book two of the trilogy, though I'm interested in whether or not Aoife can fix her mistakes.

3 stars! It's a flawed book, but I still had some fun reading it.

What am I reading next?: Chime by Franny Billingsley