Why I Read It: I hadn’t originally planned on picking up Heart of Iron until I read Sedia’s House of Discarded Dreams, which was and still is languishing in my TBR pile. Not that the two books are related by anything except their author: I just have a rule to not pick up a book by an author if I have another book by the same author unread in the TBR pile. But Borders was closing and offering awesome discounts, and I knew I’d read this eventually anyway, so I picked it up. The Mount TBR challenge (and the Olympics!) gave me the perfect opportunity to read it, so I did.
The premise: ganked from BN.com: 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. The only place they can turn to for help is the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, newly founded by the Taiping rebels. Pursued by the terrifying Dame Florence Nightingale of the British Secret Service, Sasha and Jack escape across Siberia via train to China. Sasha discovers that Jack is not quite the person she thought he was…but then again, neither is she.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay, with the tiny exception about love stories and how it’s a non-issue in this book and why. If you’re paranoid, feel free to skip to “My Rating.” Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: While I’m certainly no expert on history, and therefore have to look things up when it comes to reading an alternate history such as this in order to know what’s different (let’s be real: in the eighties, they were not teaching school children like myself Russian history), there was one clue that even a dolt like me could recognize: in this alternate history, Florence Nightingale was not a nurse, but rather a spy. A rather nasty piece of work besides, which is interesting and ironic, because one would imagine that as a nurse, she would have been compassionate, you know?
At any rate, this is clearly an alternate history. Less clearly steampunk, though it becomes more obvious toward the end of the book, but those those readers holding back because you don’t like steampunk, well, it’s not a MAJOR part of the setting. Instead, it’s the alternate history aspect that drives the story. More to the point, it starts with a girl and her aunt, and essentially ends there too.
I was pretty much immediately hooked once I started reading this book. The writing was really good and engaging as a whole, and as a result, I was sucked into Sasha’s voice and her world. Frankly, while I have seen some reviews to the contrary, I found the beginning of the book to be the most compelling: Sasha being one of the first women allowed to attend university, reading about her time there, what the education was like. Talk about frightening (page 40):
“Professor Ipatiev seems like a kind man. And yet he looks directly at you and me when he talks about women’s brains being smaller than men’s.”
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.
The scary thing is, I have no doubt that such things were taught back in that time. And it’s not just the window into education of that time and what it must have been like to be one of the first women going to university, but the very simple aspects of reading about a character (a self-possessed, smart and resourceful heroine) in Russia, written all by a Russian author. If there’s one thing I didn’t have to worry about here, it was appropriation. That doesn’t mean Sedia can’t get things wrong about her own country, but she’s allowed.
At any rate, I was engaged. Sasha’s Aunt Eugenia cracked me up on a regular basis. Be it a snarky remark (page 27):
We observed holy days on my mother’s insistence, even though Eugenia was of the mind that such pettiness as keeping track of who ate what when was unbecoming to a deity who had any ambition of looking important.
Or this when surveying a dress being made for Sasha (page 124):
“It’s very nice,” Eugenia said. “A good color for you — it reminds me of a sword blade.”
And a little later, when Sasha gets the opportunity to point out Jack (page 125):
She squinted at the trio through her lorgnette, and whispered to me, “Is this the Englishman who always walks you home?”
“Yes,” I said. “What do you think?”
“A bit stringy,” Eugenia said. “Then again, I don’t suppose you’re intent on cooking him, so it shouldn’t matter all that much.”
And then there were some more serious moments, as when Eugenia is confronting the emperor (page 23):
Aunt Eugenia drew closer, her bony finger in his face. “You better fix those laws so that I can never see another deserving woman tossed out of her house and sent to live with her relatives,” she said.
“But my dear,” the empress said. “Most women are not equipped to run an estate. Why, just look at your own sister.”
A terrible smile spread across my aunt’s features; she no longer looked plain but petrifying, a Fury of old come to avenge the crimes committed against widows and orphans. “Please do not fault my sister for not knowing the things she was never taught,” she said.
The aunt isn’t the only with sharp retorts. Even Sasha has amble opportunity to defend herself against injustices (page 62):
I whipped my parasol across his knuckles, and he withdrew his hand with a hiss.
“Now,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster, “there seems to be a mistake, for there is absolutely no reason for you to interfere with my schooling. I have done nothing illegal. I will gladly come with you to clear up any misunderstanding, but please do not lay your hands on me. I have heard a number of unfortunate maiming accidents involving parasols. You would not wish such to befall you.”
While the dialogue kept my attention, as did the descriptions of the setting, appropriate evoking the mood of the piece (page 69):
The sky above us changed color — from cornflower blue, it silvered like the side of a fish, and slowly darkened into leaden.
This is another section that I loved for its description of setting (page 141):
The ministry was not far from Balchug Street. We had only to cross the bridge over the Moscow River, already seized with black and green brittle casing of ice, pass the Kremlin, and enter a labyrinth of small twisting streets. Snow slushed underfoot, dirty and weeping, kneaded by the multitude of feet.
I will note that despite really enjoying the writing, there were a few places in the text that tripped me up, where verb usage wasn’t quite right, but it got missed in the editing process. Alas. A minor quibble.
At any rate, the story: Sasha, who’s befriended Chinese students at the university, is fighting against the unfair treatment of them. Unfair as in they’re getting arrested for no reason, and through various channels, Sasha believes the Russians should make peace with the Chinese, become Allies, because England, while pretending to be Russia’s friend, may actually be allying with one of Russia’s enemies, so Sasha takes it upon herself to set things right.
It’s a little far-fetched when you spell it out that way, obviously. But the pace of the book and the interactions between the characters made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief. I was also fascinated by the inherent conflict Russia had as a country: whether to embrace its European side, or its Asiatic side, as the country borders both. This fascinated me, this struggle between the West and the East, with Russia right in the middle on so many levels. And while I never had a concern for accuracy of Russia, I can’t speak for or against Sedia’s portrayal of China and its culture. From the story perspective, everything worked well for me, though I have seen some reviewers complain that Sasha’s friendship burgeoning on love for Chiang Tse would have been impossible, that any sort of interracial relationship would have been utterly unrealistic for both sides. I have a few thoughts on that.
1) This is alternate history. You can make anything work, when it’s alternate history.
2) I never really felt like Sasha was in love with him. That she loved him as a friend there was no question, and yes, I do think she entertained the notion of something more (as revealed in her letters). But an outright, traditional love story? Not in the book, not in the slightest. Unrealistic interracial relationships or not, the book never transcended to be more than a close friendship, and as such, I don’t see why any open-minded character witnessing said friendship would have a problem. Besides, it’s sweet. Really, really sweet.
And this train of thought brings us to the “love interests.” I use quotations because really, Sasha isn’t interested in romance. She doesn’t sit around dreaming of her one true love, she doesn’t bemoan her relationship status nor her prospects. She takes after her aunt a great deal, priding herself in her education and love of her country, and she is fiercely loyal to her friends. Jack, no doubt, is a friend. A friend who wants something more, but such something more isn’t something Sasha can return, despite cherishing his friendship. So really, there is no love story, no triangle, nothing.
Speaking of Jack, Sedia takes the folk tale of the Spring Heeled Jack, a character I’m quite unfamiliar with outside of name recognition, and plants him in this story. He’s definitely the most overtly magical element to the story. His abilities are explained… kind of. I’ve seen some reviewers grumble that the character is a waste in such a supporting role, and perhaps his inclusion in this narrative was a bit strange. No doubt, Jack himself was a character I alternatively liked and worried about, but I never had any rage about him sticking out like a sore thumb. It worked well enough for me, but if other reviewers are any indication, your mileage may vary.
Which means I’d now like to focus on Sasha herself. I’ve seen some reviewers complain that she’s nothing but a Mary Sue. So here’s a public service announcement: if you are talking about a book that’s a piece of original fiction, do not use the terms Mary Sue or Gary Stu as a description of the main characters. Why? Seanan McGuire has an excellent post about the folly of this here. It’s a fabulous piece, you really must read it. But the ultimate point of the article is that Mary Sues, by their very nature, break the story they are inserted in.
Think about that. Long and hard.
Now consider that every piece of fiction (not fan fiction!) is an original work that’s built around its main characters, or its main characters are built around the world.
Do you see why using the term Mary Sue for an original character is folly?
I won’t begrudge you the use of the term wish-fulfillment. Or author avatar. You can complain that a character is too perfect all you want. But to slap the shortcut “Mary Sue” on a character isn’t right.
To get back to Sasha, yes, she has moments that had me raise my eyebrows, like her fighting with a saber at the end. I don’t believe that in the real world, the girl wouldn’t get herself killed, despite finding out later the girl’s had a few lessons. She’s also mocked appropriately by her Chinese companions (page 279):
Lee Bo shrugged. “If we ran into Qing forces, that letter would’ve had an opposite effect. In any case, you’re a barbarian, and it would be foolish to expect people to trust you.”
“Kuan Yu does.”
Lee Bo shook his head, smiling. “This is very naive of you. Do you think he is helping you because you’re serving the purpose he finds agreeable, or because you’re so precious that everyone who runs into you just has to help you?”
“The former.” I tried not to sulk.
My only question regarding Sasha was this: the back cover blurb indicates that she is more than she appears. Is this only referring to the fact that she dresses up as a man for the last half of the book? Because if that’s the case, what a lame teaser. I kept expecting some kind of magical revelation, and I never got it. :-/
There is so much that’s juicy in this book in terms of perspective and politics and social issues. Why people act the way they do. Why people act against their own self interest, which is a topic that never gets old. On page 288, Eugenia laments:
“I always keep thinking we women ought to stick together, and I keep telling it to the empress — because if we do, we can stand up to the men and to the way they run things. But the empress and that Nightingale, they value men’s opinion over those of their own kind. And I don’t know what to do about them.”
My Rating: 8 – Excellent
This book’s gotten a lot of varied reviews, but as a fan of Sedia’s, who I think improves with each new story, I think this is my favorite to date. I latched onto the characters immediately and was instantly absorbed into the setting and the world-building. I was recommending this book to people before I even finished it! The steam-punk is on the light side, and the alternate history may or may not be obvious depending on how well you’re versed in Russian history itself, but it’s a compelling read nonetheless. While I preferred the first half of quiet tension to the second half, it was an utterly enjoy read that I ended up finishing in a surprisingly fast amount of time. An easy book to recommend, especially for fans of the author.
Cover Commentary: I like it a lot. It’s striking to be, the way the light and shadow plays, the coloring of it all, even the design. The train shown itself doesn’t seem to make an appearance in the novel, unless it’s not a train, in which case, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be.