We all know that love is in the air with Valentine’s Day approaching and who doesn’t want to cozy up with a dark fantasy romance modeled after Jane Eyre with all the right notes of creepy stalkers and maniacal fairies?
Well, if you are interested, Tina Connolly’s “Ironskin” gives the classic tale a delicious and twisted spin. There’s no crazy woman in the attic, but the story itself is very much about otherization and provides us with a strong female lead (at least by Victorian England standards).
Enter Jane Eliot. She’s a governess who was maimed during the Great War, a battle between woodland feys and humans. Touched by fey power that causes her to feel unnecessary rage, she must wear an iron mask to keep her curse from reaching and disturbing others. In need of self-sufficiency, Jane takes a job as caretaker to a motherless child in a “delicate situation”. The child named Dorie, born during the Great War, bears a similar fey curse to Jane but her malady extends beyond Ms. Eliot’s own experience: she demonstrates fey powers with no actual scar.
The house is run by Dorie’s father, a mysterious and sexualized version of Mr. Rochester (named Mr. Edward Rochart). He’s creepy to the point that I didn’t entirely understand Jane’s fascination with him and he is known throughout England as a superb sculptor of masks. Rich women from all over the countryside visit him to have their faces rendered by his hand. Once they leave his mansion, they demonstrate an otherworldly beauty that is attributed to Mr. Rochart’s powers of relaxation (and the rumored affairs he has with each).
The tale is equal parts fantasy and steampunk. Although humans “won” the Great War, there still remains a stigma toward the ironskin (those touched by fey curses) and an inability to completely cure those marred by the fey. The novel, while containing carriages and huge mansions and corsets, also has fey technology similar to lightbulbs called blue packs. These also enable the trains to run. Such technology is used because men have beaten back the threat of fey and as such, enjoy the spoils of war.
I think Connolly addresses a good number of interesting societal themes throughout the book. Her main character is concerned with beauty and the mutual relationship beauty seems to have with class. Essentially, if women can afford the arts of Mr. Rochart, their faces can be remade in a more other-worldly vein. This discussion runs parallel to the struggle Jane has with her slightly vapid sister who marries a man in order to be well-provided for. He, like Mr. Rochart, is also a bit of a creep. While Jane does demonstrate vanity, she isn’t entirely flawed in that respect as she is often shunned or feared by others because of her looks. She resigns herself to a spinster life in the beginning, but her own anger at the unfair situation is often at odds with her no-cares-given attitude.
That being said, the novel does provide an interesting commentary on the power of beauty and wealth. And how sometimes, beauty – whether natural or bought – perverts the nature of those who carry it if they aren’t careful. The novel also provides a commentary on self-control for its characters: Jane must learn to control her anger while Dorie must learn to control her mysterious powers. However, this self-control isn’t necessarily a positive attribute as it is mainly fostered by society’s need to “keep up appearances” (or in the British saying from WWII, keep calm and carry on). Connolly ultimately falls on the side that argues socially imposed vanity and concern regarding appearance can lead to humanity’s downfall.
Another interesting commentary that wasn’t fully developed was mankind’s laziness when it comes to progress. Due to the technology that humans gain from the Great War, men no longer create their own devices. Innovation is halted in the realm of scientific discoveries, providing a dangerous stalemate in the evolution of society. While Jane does invent a way to help Dorie control her curse, the focus of all are on the attainment of beauty rather than real societal progress (in both attitudes and in physical objects).
I was slightly disappointed with the lack of positive male characters in the novel. The ones portrayed are power-hungry, deceptive, and fall into the normal structure of Victorian England patriarchy. While this was probably the rule when it came to the time period Connolly wrote about, I still found it unsettling. Ultimately, both Mr. Rochart and Helen’s husband exhibit male societal power, impose the patriarchy on Helen and Jane, and ultimately forward humanity’s spiral towards extinction. I was also disappointed that Jane lets society’s measure of beauty get to her and nearly destroy her as well.
Still, Jane does offer some remarkable bits of wisdom. One that I particularly enjoyed was on page 292 where, when accused that she has made a certain choice in order to be with Mr. Rochart, she responds that it is “The choice not to be a victim. Not to be on the run , and not to let you drive me from the few people left in this world whom I care about. Who care for me.” While this sentiment gave me the hope of redeeming Jane’s previous weaknesses, she still uses these strong-worded sentiments to choose Mr. Rochart. In doing so, she similarly lifts responsibility from Mr. Rochart of his actions by stating outside forces drove his shady deeds.
Ultimately, I found Jane a bit weak-willed as she plays into the stereotypical role she rails against and I’m not sure whether or not this was Connolly’s intention.
As far as fantastical elements go, there are a ton and they don’t necessarily prescribe to genre tropes which is really nice. The fey in the novel are pretty nasty buggers and I liked the notion of curses that they imposed on mankind to effect the personality of the victims. Granted, the twists aren’t really twists at all as I guessed them pretty far in advance. I’ll call them turns for lack of a better word. Still, Connolly’s work was nominated for a Nebula and I’m sure it will please others who are hard-core Jane Eyre fans (unlike myself).
Overall, 3.5 out of 5 stars.