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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Heart of Iron" by Ekaterina Sedia (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Ekaterina Sedia Website
Read FBC Review of The Alchemy of Stone
Order Heart of Iron HERE or HERE (epub)

INTRODUCTION: Since I've read and enjoyed a lot The Alchemy of Stone, I always kept an eye on what Ekaterina Sedia publishes. I have a copy of last year's The House of Discarded Dreams which I plan to read at some point, but when Heart of Iron was announced the blurb immediately jumped at me. I checked out the Amazon Kindle sample and I liked what I read there so I immediately got a copy and read it soon after.

"In a Russia where the Decembrists' rebellion was successful and the Trans-Siberian railroad was completed before 1854, Sasha Trubetskaya wants nothing more than to have a decent debut ball in St. Petersburg. But her aunt's feud with the emperor lands Sasha at university, where she becomes one of its first female students - an experiment, she suspects, designed more to prove female unsuitability for such pursuits than offer them education. The pressure intensifies when Sasha's only friends—Chinese students—start disappearing, and she begins to realize that her new British companion, Jack, has bigger secrets than she can imagine! Sasha and Jack find themselves trying to stop a war brewing between the three empires."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Heart of Iron has a very ambitious premise, trying to mix steampunk action with "realism" about race, gender, etc in the 19th century. Unfortunately it fails in its execution, the novel soon becoming in fact a YA adventure with an enchanting heroine and great atmosphere, but action without tension or danger in pulp mode, while said "realism" about women in the 19th century society and to a lesser extent about races is very simplistic and soon it is essentially forgotten in the quest of our heroine to make everyone happy, the world a better place and the baddies repent.

Alexandra aka Sasha's father has been a hero of the Decembrist revolution in 1825, but on his death he has left the family somewhat impoverished; fortunately Sasha is also the heir of her maternal aunt Countess Eugenia Menshova who has inherited the maternal line wealth and is a very well known - some would say notorious - personality in the capital, friend of Emperor Constantine and militating for women's rights in a society that has been modernizing at a furious pace since the revolution.

Growing up at the family estate at Trubetskoye, Sasha's introduction to the St.Petersburg court does not go quite as planned and she returns home somewhat disappointed by the capital. Soon after pushed by Eugenia, the Emperor agrees to try an "experiment" in allowing young women to take classes at the university of St. Petersburg and Sasha -now 18 - is a natural choice for one the few allotted spots. So she finds herself going back to the capital, but this time taking the train that connects St. Petersburg to her far away town.

Apprehensive about how she will be received in the formerly all-male university, Sasha makes friends with another "outsider", a Chinese student Chiang Tse hailing from a Hong Kong recently ceded by the Celestial Empire to the British after the disastrous Opium war. With Britain and Russia preparing to make an alliance and St. Petersburg full of British representatives and agents, while China is in turmoil and revolution, the Chinese students are regarded as enemy spies by many and the secret police led by Constatine's brother Nicholas keeps a close on eye on them with sporadic disappearances.

Soon Sasha finds out that dealing with the male chauvinism of many of her her colleagues and professors is nothing compared to becoming a target of the secret police when even her rank may not protect her, but she also meets a mysterious Englishman Jack Bartram who seems to like her and wants to help her and her friends.

This first half of the novel is excellent on most counts: enchanting heroine with a great narrative voice, excellent world building with a true sense of Russia and a promise of mystery and adventure to come, while the social commentary is not that subtle but works and is drawn from the mores of the times:

"I sighed and remembered the tittering that ran in waves across the auditorium every time Professor Ipatiev spoke about anatomical differences such as that—about how Africans were incapable of any learning, and the Asians could only memorize but not really comprehend complex concepts; about how women’s minds were subordinate to their wombs, how their brains lacked the requisite number of folds. One could not help but feel somewhat insulted."

Sadly all this starts dissipating when the action commences and we see Sasha and Jack starting on the quest mentioned in the blurb. From then on all realism - as it was anyway - disappears, the story becomes very fairytale and the last half is pretty boring since despite the accelerating pace, there is no tension, no sense of danger, you know all will be cheery/peachy and even the bad guys may be redeemed so to speak, while the characters outside Sasha remain one dimensional throughout.

The one thing that kept me reading was Sasha's voice who remained engaging to the end and it was truly a pleasure making the book worthwhile despite the very YA second half. I strongly feel that Heart of Iron (B) could have been so much better were it to either embrace steampunk in its essence - pure wish fulfillment adventure - or if it would have been darker and indeed realistic, with actions having consequences, rather than a continual sequence of almost cartoonish escapes in the nick of time, disguises that nobody penetrates, etc. The elements were there: great narrator, superb style, pitch perfect atmosphere, but the storyline just does not deliver.


Bibliotropic said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one. I have a couple of Sedia's books, though I haven't actually read any of them yet (bad bad reader!), but they do seem like they'll be interesting!

SBJones said...

I love the cover. I am a big Steampunk fan and my novel The Eternal Gateway: Requiem is set in a Steampunk mix magic world.

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