The cover of Tina Connolly’s debut fantasy novel Ironskin describes it as a “… beauty and the beast tale, beautifully and cleverly reversed.” Is it Beauty and the Beast? Not really. Is it a re-telling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre? No, not really. Is it good? Heck, yeah.
Jane Eliot comes to Silver Birches, a war-damaged house on the moors, at the edge of a sinister, fey-filled wood. She has accepted a position as governess to a little girl who has a “delicate situation.” Jane understands the nature of this situation better than most. Beneath her gently fluttering white veil Jane wears an iron mask that covers one side of her face. It is her ironskin, designed to keep the power of her wound from a fey bomb, her curse, contained.
The place is England, and the time seems to be about the 1920s. It is after the Great War. That war was not England versus Germany, but human versus fey. The humans won, or think they have, and society is beginning to recover, but the fey weapons damage not only the person they strike, but anyone around that person, who broadcasts negative emotions like rage, hunger or fear, unless the scar is covered by iron. “Ironskins” are viewed not with compassion but fear and disgust by people who want to put the war behind them and forget its cost.
Jane is filled with bitterness, bitter at the loss of her beloved brother in the war, the unfairness of the mask she is forced to wear, and the thoughts of the life the war took from her. The death of her father and brother meant the loss of the family estate, and Jane and her sister Helen are impoverished. Helen, who is pretty, has snagged an eligible fiancé, but damaged Jane is forced to be a governess. Dorie Rochart, her charge, is a beautiful little girl whose curse is extremely unusual, and her widowed father Edward Rochester — sorry, Rochart — a successful artist, is a mystery man.
Ironskin’s echoes of Jane Eyre are graceful and intentional. Most names carry a hint of the classic; Jane, of course, Edward Rochart, the enigmatic servant whose name is Poule, and Blanche Ingel, an acquaintance of Edward’s. Place names (Norwood School) also nod to the classic. The book is not a retelling of the Victorian bestseller though, but an imagining of a similar situation in a completely different world. Connolly blends in familiar folklore of the fey; the faerie queen who steals human children, the fatal bargain, the forbidden forest and the power of cold iron. Along with the familiar, she brings in the new idea of fey technology and the human dependency on it. The secret of the mysterious “blue-packs” was too easy to figure out, and the Fey Queen’s motivation for starting the war when she did is a bit shaky, but these ideas are beautifully braided in with the traditional superstitions about the fey folk.
She was nearing the wall sconce when it suddenly winked out, and Jane found herself in the gray-black of a windowless hall at twilight. There was a dart of wind past her hair, as if dry leaves had flung past and departed, and a crackle that sizzled in the air like after-lightning. And then nothing, nothing to show that the fey technology had been there, except a bare copper sconce on the wall, barely visible as her eyes adjusted.
Ironskin is filled with masks and secrets. There is Jane’s mask, the masks that Edward makes. The fey, who have no corporeal form, possess the bodies of humans they’ve killed, a form of mask. Connolly uses the symbolism of Edward’s masks, and the “fey beauty” sought by the English aristocrats, extremely well. Edward’s secret and its consequences drive a convincing plot with a dramatic climax that leaves the story poised for a sequel.
I liked Ironskin’s characters. I’m a big Bronte fan, and an English murder mystery fan, so the cook and the one maid in Silver Birches were variations on a familiar theme, done well. The normalcy of these two provides a good contrast for the strangeness of the dwarven Poule. Toward the end of the book, there is a lovely exchange among Jane, the cook, and Poule. It demonstrates perfectly the power of the fey curse, and Jane’s inner strength.
Much of the “Eyre-esque” part of the book is the banter between Edward and Jane, and so I can’t quite tell whether the relationship between the two of them is actually plausible. In fact, having finished the book, I think that maybe Connolly didn’t really work on the relationship and let the template of the Eyre/Rochester love story do the work. I did not think that while I was reading the book, though. The slowly-growing connection between Jane and Dorie is completely believable.
The time period was not firmly set in the beginning and seemed to wobble a bit; there are at least three references to T-strap shoes, but in an early scene Jane catches up her skirts, conjuring an image of an earlier time period. Connolly is not writing a Victorian or an early twentieth-century pastiche. Her prose is very current and Jane uses current language constructions. Normally this irritates me, but I was so curious to find out what was going to happen that I didn’t care. The story is suspenseful. Jane is a strong, complicated character and the power of the incorporeal fey is thoroughly incorporated into the story. This is a genuine fantasy in a genuine alternate world. You cannot pull out the fey and still have a convincing story. Jane would not be Jane without her wound; the Jane who fights back at the end would not exist without masked Jane at the beginning. I recommend Ironskin and I look forward to more novels by this writer.