The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
Posted 05/14/2011 by alicemarvels in Steampunk
PROS:Lovecraftian beasties, female engineer, madness ticking time bomb, well-done horror, alternate history
I just wanted to swim in Caitlin Kittredge’s bizarre world of frightening creepy crawlies, the fey, witchcraft, dystopia, steampunk mechanics, and aether magic until my fingers got all pruny.
As a burgeoning steampunk fan, I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy The Iron Thorn. Don’t you love being right? I loved loved loved this book. I just wanted to swim in Caitlin Kittredge’s bizarre world of frightening creepy crawlies, the fey, witchcraft, dystopia, steampunk mechanics, and aether magic until my fingers got all pruny. The mood from page one was overwhelmingly Lovecraftian (and no, it’s not just because the city is named Lovecraft). Madness is in the air, eldritch creatures haunt the darkened corners, alleys, and rivers of the city. Witchcraft and magic are acknowledged (but strictly forbidden as Heretical) by the Proctors, who rule the city with a dystopian-flavored iron fist, complete with mechanical raven spies and the burning of heretics in the immense columns of steam that rise up from the city’s great engine. The necrovirus—a disease of madness that turns some humans into monstrous creatures—is everpresent in the lives of Lovecraftians, and the city and its environs seem to hover on the brink of ghostly existence.
The atmosphere of dread and suspense is so all-consuming and oppressive you feel like you need smelling salts to rise out of it when you take a break. And you will need to take breaks, because the book, clocking in at 496 pages, is LONG. But it never ever FEELS long. So you will find it surprising when your stomach growls, or when your eyes droop because your body is giving out though your brain is READING (ugh, so rude!), and you realize that even though you’re desperately hooked on the story, it isn’t going to be a one-sitting book.
The Iron Thorn delivered some of the elements I loved in Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series (a feminine
but highly opinionated, somewhat anachronistic heroine; magical and CUHREEEEEPY occurrences,
the kind that leave your skin crawling) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (oddly alluring
mechanics and devices; slightly re-imagined alternate universes bearing striking resemblance to our own
reality; bold and intrepid supporting characters – Dean I’m looking at you).
Aoife Grayson is possibly one of the coolest names for a heroine I’ve seen in a long time. (It’s
pronounced “Ee-Fah,” BTW). I loved Aoife as a character – she was bold, brash, and brave in spite of
her fear of the necrovirus madness that laces her blood, ready to ignite at the age of sixteen and claim
her in the same way it did her mother Nerissa (clawing the walls at the nearby asylum), and her brother
Conrad (on the run after nearly KILLING Aoife). How does this girl even function? I’d be a blubbering
wreck in her shoes.
An atypical female in this alternate 1950’s universe, she is one of the only female engineers in training at
her school, and she has attitude and conviction beyond her station (the same anachronistic awareness/
awesomeness that endeared me to Gemma Doyle). She is intellectually curious to a fault, and finds
little mechanical/engineering rabbit holes too fascinating NOT to fall into – one example being the great
clockwork in her father’s Arkham manor. She especially can’t resist these rabbit holes if they have any
chance of helping her understand and potentially avoid her fate of madness.
So, despite the fact that her last encounter with her brother Conrad was when he had a knife to her neck, she feels the overwhelming urge to respond to a cryptic and disconcerting message he sends to her at the School of Engines:
Find the witch’s alphabet.Save yourself.
So, let me get this straight, Aoife. Your family is crazy, your brother may even be hellbent on killing you,
and you know if you step out of line at all in the eyes of the Proctors, you’re going to get steamed alive
for heresy. Are you going to listen to your nutcase brother and try to find this “witch’s alphabet”?
(Hint: of course she is! Otherwise the rest of the novel would have been about solving engineering
equations and eyeing the clock, waiting for the looney bin to come calling.) Aoife begins a ballsy and
terrifying journey to her long lost father’s manor in Arkham to find her brother and the witch’s alphabet,
and she enlists the help of her best guy friend Cal and a heretic-friendly guide named Dean from the
dodgier side of Lovecraft.
The world-building in this book may be all over the place, but it is insanely effective. If you did a quick
run-down of all the fantasy, horror, steampunk and historical flavorings and concepts Kittredge not just
managed to squeeze in, but weave into a compelling alternate reality, I might have laughed maniacally
at you, but it SO works. I love the Nightfall Market, where you can buy magical artifacts, clockworks,
and even a guide to get you out of the city. Another cool stop was the Night Bridge – a bridge that
collapsed due to poor engineering in life, but Dean, being the intrepid steampunk hunk he is, sees it for
what it really is: a ghostly bridge that you can cross in exchange for a toll of blood.
For those who want to know the romance score – there are three standouts. Cal is Aoife’s best friend,
who risks pretty much everything to accompany her on her journey to Arkham, and then spends quite a
lot of the trip whining and sulking. In all honesty, I spent most of the book disliking Cal intensely only to
be rather surprised by him in the end, enough to give him a begrudging headnod of respect.
DEAN! Kittredge may as well have just left off the James, cause this guy was a total rebel, leather-
wearing bad boy with unstoppable appeal. I never really knew what he was after when he offered to
help Aoife and Cal with their journey out of Lovecraft, but I ate up his smart-assery and his protective
sweet exchanges with Aoife, knowing all the while he could be angling for something, but enjoying the
Tremaine – he is the REAL bad boy of the book. He is a violent, menacing fey with long blond hair and
scary spiky accessories. Sort of like a sexed up HR Giger villain. He can’t seem to speak to Aoife without
wanting to draw blood/threaten her with death. Not my particular cup of tea, but certainly charismatic.
Lovecraft, Arkham, and the world of steampunk, madness and the fey is rich, vibrantly imagined, and
not something I was ready to give up. It does end on a rather abrupt and exciting note, so I’m really
excited to read book 2 in the Iron Codex series.