Copperhead: Trophy wife saves the day

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsCopperhead by Tina Connolly fantasy book reviewsCopperhead by Tina Connolly

Copperhead is the second in Tina Connolly’s Bronte-themed fantasy novels. In the first, Ironskin, Jane Eliot, badly scarred during England’s war with the Fey, worked as a governess for the artist Mr. Rochart. Jane uncovered the Fey Queen’s plot to possess the wives of the richest and most powerful men in London — wives who had all had their faces re-made to match ethereal Fey beauty. Jane’s own sister Helen Huntingdon was one of the women who had a magical face-lift.

Jane managed to save Helen from possession. The Fey Queen was defeated and the non-corporeal Fey are in disarray. Now, though, bits of Fey drift through London like sinister flower petals. All of the One Hundred, those who had their faces changed, must wear iron masks when they go outside to avoid the risk of possession. Iron repels the Fey. Helen joins forces with Jane in a plan to return the faces of the One Hundred to human; but Jane is finding it hard to get the women of the upper class to agree, even though it will save their lives.

Helen is the main character of Copperhead. Helen made a socially advantageous marriage, but she is not completely satisfied with Alistair, who seems to like his whiskey more than her. Alistair has become part of the Copperhead group, which takes the hydra as its symbol; a group that claims to fight the Fey and work to keep London safe. Shallow Alistair is completely under the thrall of Mr. Grimsby, Copperhead’s ruthless leader. During a meeting of the Copperhead group, Jane suddenly disappears, and soon Grimsby is accusing her of murder and calling her a traitor. It is up to Helen to rescue her sister and persuade the women of the One Hundred to save themselves.

Fans of the Brontes, those successful Victorian novelists, will recognize the name Helen Huntingdon from Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While the original Helen is the blandest of the Brontes’ characters, a conventionally virtuous, long-suffering “runaway wife” who literally puts the narrative of her life into the hands of one man after another without thinking twice, Connolly’s character has a bit more of a spine. Unlike scarred Jane, Helen knows what it means to use your prettiness to get ahead. Unlike Jane the outsider, Helen has managed to claw her way into society, and she knows how society works. Helen understands perfectly why a woman who is at risk of losing her entire being will still cling to the magical face that gives her privilege and power.

The men who encouraged their wives to have the first magical procedure, and paid for it, in order to have the status symbol of a beautiful wife, now restrict the freedom their wives for reasons of “national security.” All a husband has to do to limit his wife’s movements is take away her iron mask, which Alistair does. Strangely, Helen continues to travel around outside without the mask, something I never quite understood, since, having been briefly possessed, she understands the risks better than anyone.

For a man committed to protecting human London from the Fey, Grimsby seems strangely focused on the dwarven, another race who allied with the humans against the Fey in the war. Instead of honoring the alliance, Grimsby influences changes in the law, and introduces the use of the pejorative term “dwarf.” Grimsby is a plausible monster, manipulating everyone around him, and Connolly uses Copperhead to explore fascism and the politics of fear.

I may have made the book sound pedantic; it isn’t. Connolly does not lose track of her plot, and she’s created a fantastical adventure with magic and a soupçon of romance. Helen’s external struggles are matched by her need to overcome self-doubt and become brave. Her growth is not linear; like real life, Helen has setbacks and sloughs of despair. Helen has always seen Jane as the strong one. Without her sister’s support she must learn to trust herself, and this is even more difficult as she interacts with the copper necklace her husband gave her. Unlike iron, copper seems to enhance Fey magic, and Helen must decide if she wants to wield this power. She must also decide exactly what she wants from Rook, a man she met at a Copperhead meeting.

When we saw Helen through Jane’s eyes in the first book, she came across as spoiled and cosseted, “the pretty one.” Now, in Helen’s point of view, we see that she considered herself the one who was left behind. Helen must discover her own resources if she is ever to outgrow the role of “trophy wife,” and if she is going to save London.

The nature of Fey is consistent, and Connolly’s England, which is not Victorian although it maintains a bit of Victorian flavor (certainly women’s restricted status), is expertly painted with a few key details. Daring women, like actresses, are wearing trousers, and T-strap pumps are all the rage. In a nice touch, Helen notices that human-faced, “average” women are going around outside with iron masks, to create the illusion that they have ethereal beauty.

As she did in Ironskin, Connolly also manages homage to Anne Bronte with a couple of scenes that mirror passages in Wildfell Hall. It’s a tribute to Connolly’s story-telling that these sections work without derailing her story. At the end of the book, the struggle is resolved, and Helen has found some happiness, but this new style of war may not be over.

My measure of Connolly’s triumph is that Helen is the type of character I usually do not like, and by halfway through the book I was cheering her on. Tina Connolly again shows her originality, story-telling skill and depth of characterization in this one.


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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